Sewing their way to independence
In a side street to a side street leading off the bustling souk in the Moroccan tourist town of Marrakech, nine women sit each day sewing their dreams together – quite literally. The nine women are all members of the Reseau Femmes Artisanes Marrakech cooperative; they are all aged between 30 and 40 and are, for the most, mothers and wives, with a few who are single. The women dream of creating a sustainable and profitable business with the products that they collectively design, sew and embroider. With the sale of their products to foreign customers, the nine women now work full time, though with a varying income that on avereage lies below what would be expected as a full-time wage in Morocco.
Since 2008, the cooperative has been involved in the KVINFO-supported partnership with students from the Danish Design School, the French NGO Planet Finance Maroc and the Moroccan design school Collège Lasalle. Through the initiative, the women have developed their techniques and methods for product development, design and production. Workshops in marketing, price setting and sales have also been held.
“We’ve learnt a lot about new techniques, about designing motifs and how to easily transfer these to paper and then to fabric, and about using and putting together colours that appeal to foreign markets. When it comes to embroidery for instance, the Danish and Scandinavian tastes for example favour much simpler motifs and colour pallets. Our dream is of course to sell our products in many countries. We’ve shown our products in Spain, France and Denmark and hope that this will lead to orders being made. As well as this, we try to use our network and create contacts on the Internet,” explain the women of the cooperative.
The cooperative has also felt the effects of the global economic crisis, and it is difficult for them to sell their products. The women are trying to expand their sales platform with new distribution channels such as restaurants, cafés, larger shops or department stores. But as yet, with no result. At the present time, they are selling their products either through the workshop where they sew and receive business visitors, or from the small shop on the souk – the town’s central market.
There is room for six women in the premises owned by the cooperative – three of them have no machine and sew at home by hand. On top of these come a varying number – up to 30 – of loosely attached workers, depending upon the orders and customer demand, who also sit at home and sow by hand. The women would like to have bigger premises, preferably next to other handicraft workers, so that they can combine their production and sales of their respective products within the same building. At the moment, this is a large and fairly distant dream, but as they say, that’s what starts it off and bit by bit it can become reality.
Some of the cooperative’s permanent members live so far away from the central Marrakech sewing workshop that they cannot come every day.
The women are currently talking about establishing a joint childcare scheme in connection with the cooperative. This is partly because there are no public child-care provisions and it would make it easier for more women to work longer. It is also intended to prevent child labour.
“It’s difficult to control and ensure that child labour isn’t going on when the women are working at home. We know that more and more of them are sending their children to school, which we encourage them to do. But it’s tempting for them to put their older children to work doing some of the simpler tasks, thereby being able to produce more,” tells Sa’ida Cha’abouni, spokeswoman for the cooperative.
The majority of the husbands of the cooperative are positive about the work their wives are doing. In situations where this has not been the case, Sa’ida Cha’abouni explains that the women have joined together to try and convince the man of the benefits of having a working wife.
“It’s been the case that we have gone to visit a husband to talk to him. We focussed on explaining about the economic benefits, and I think it has worked,” she explains.
She believes that in those cases where the husband has been reluctant, his objections have been to do with jealousy and feelings that his wife would be competing with him.
These weights are placed upon the fabric when it is being cut to ensure it remains smooth and wrinkle-free.
Almost unanimously, the women express that they are proud about being able to contribute to the income of their homes. The money they earn is actually a significant contribution to the housekeeping budget.
“One of us has, for example, been able to pay for medicine for a sick family member. Many offer financial help to their parents – and are able to do this more than if they didn’t have this extra income coming in,” they explain.
Everyone in the cooperative produces the same type of product, namely the jointly developed product that the customers are asking for. They divide their income equally between themselves. All the sewing machines are joint investments and have been bought using the proceeds from sales. These have been bought one by one, as the money to pay for them has become available.
From time to time, the cooperative takes in girls who have dropped out of the standard educational system and the women train them in the production of handicrafts. Two of the women are permanently responsible for training and teaching the required skills to new women.
The women sell their own products as well as products from other cooperatives through a network of women’s cooperatives that support each other in developing and marketing their businesses and products. Before the arrival of potential customers, the products need to be arranged in a presentable manner.
Among other things, the partnership with the Danish Design School has resulted in the women of the cooperative gaining new inspiration for design methods and processes.