Rensina van den Heuvel has traveled in Mongolia many times, and leads tours there (find out about upcoming trips here). This project is part of her desire to give back to the women she has met along the way. Read more about this below or more about her travels at Womens Travel Adventures
Bags are for sale to raise funds for next years project:
- for small coin purses are from $6.50A
- phone bags are $6A
- medium bags (double passport size) are $11A
- larger bags with shoulder strap are $19 A each.
Some images are below – All are hand embroidered with Kazakh design and sold and made in Co operatives throughout Mongolia. NO factory. All are Fair Trade and made by Artisans and each one is Unique. Some of them are made from Recycled Kazakh bedspreads. Very colourful and beautifully made. I have many many designs ands colors to choose from. I have some handmade hand embroidered Christmas decorations too.
“Well, it’s a cultural thing” explained Irene, in her lilting rolling, Scottish accent, “of course they need money but they’re not very motivated to create business. Not like we are in the West.” She was speaking generally of the Mongolian people from her vast experience of living and working in Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia’s capital city.
I had arranged to have lunch with Irene as I needed some advice and guidance, as to where was the best place to put my energy and the funds I had raised in Australia for the Women to Women Empowerment Project.
I was speaking with a woman of considerable experience!
Irene and husband Bill are the founders and directors of Mary and Martha a small company which promotes and works on the principles of Social Enterprise and Fair Trade. They have been living in Ulaan Bataar for twelve years.
After lunch, I wandered into the beautifully laid out, Mary and Martha Store and feasted my eyes on the diverse range of unique creations which had come from folks all over Mongolia.
I found shoulder bags and purses which were either hand embroidered or made from recycled Kazakh bedspreads, there were silk scarves handpainted with flowers and incredibly beautiful scenes, in both vibrant and subtle colors, to suit the most astute shopper. Walking around the small alcoves I find hand embroidered cushion covers with intricate, traditional Kazakh designs, delicate jewellery with fine bead work, angels made with baked clay and the glass from broken vodka bottles (to raise money for families of alcoholics). Small items like local postcards, cute sheep brooches and key rings made from colored pieces of felt are also available. There is a gift for everyone. In the space next to the main shop there hangs, the most beautiful recycled Kazakh bedspreads/wall hangings which you could really get lost in.
Many of the products are made in very remote areas of Mongolia thus creating a source of income in areas where there is high unemployment. The entire shop is pure creativity and the young Mongolian women who are employed to help run the store are so genuinely warm and friendly, which is a true characteristic of Mongolian people. Irene and Bills ‘extended family’.
Irene and her husband Bill opened the doors of Mary and Martha, seven years ago.
Since then, they have developed thirty Artisan cooperatives right across Mongolia. At present, these co-ops directly provide sustainable employment for over 150 Mongolian people, mostly women. Like the pebble in the pond, this affects many Mongolians, feeds many families, clothes and educates children and provides warm, shelter and a quality of life.
Mary and Martha is the only Fair Trade shop in Mongolia and through this outlet the artisans are able to sell their fine products.
Mary and Martha supports many other small charity projects like Streams in the Desert which operates to halt people trafficking, (particularly vulnerable women and children), Break the chains to help young women to get ‘off the streets’ and out of the cycle of prostitution, it helps families of alcoholics deal with problems of poverty and domestic violence and works with street children and homelessness.
In Mongolia, they have all of the social problems we have, except they also have extreme weather to contend with and a Winter where it can get down to MINUS 50.
After travelling in Mongolia every years for the past five years, I myself have been able to see rapid and drastic changes. The ‘ger’ districts (like what we call suburbs) are spreading out rapidly, increasing enormously each year.
More and more Nomadic people are moving in, to the edge of the capital city, looking for work and trying to survive the freezing Winters whilst all the while, the cost of living rises and the Winters grow more and more severe.
The horrendous pollution in Winter , blankets the city and surrounds with black dust and enormous health problems are rising from this alone. If Mongolian people who live in the remote towns of Mongolia have a source of income they can afford to stay in their home towns.
The Women to Women Empowerment Project
This project, had been evolving in my mind for a few months back in November 2013.
‘Empowerment’ can mean many things to different people but my own interpretation is that “I am independant….that means, I am able to take care of myself and my family, as in, my children.”
Food on the table, shelter from the elements. Basic needs met. That is when I feel empowered and in this world we live in, that usually means money. This is my personal interpretation of ‘Empowerment’. To me, it also represents Freedom. Freedom to have choices.
So I believed that could I help to empower some Mongolian women by teaching them how to sew and try to create some employment. (Which equates to money)
I ‘launched’ ‘my project’ on my dining room table, here at home on a remote property in North Queensland. Armed with my sewing machine, I sewed my first cotton bag for resale. Simple. Make bags and sell them….and I did. Loads of them!
Then I drummed up some support and received it from individuals and groups…friends, aquaintances and strangers. Good people who believed in my idea. Two important lessons I will put in right here about how to make something happen? “See it in your mind” then Do It! Just Begin.
The moment you have enthusiasm and passion and take those very first steps towards your goal, the project begins to take shape and starts to evolve.
Hold on to it but not too tightly and allow it to transform. Unravel and unfolding like an amazing flower.
Second lesson is to be extremely flexible and open. Don’t control or over steer it too much but rather allow the project, it’s own momentum, one hand on the rudder, while it changes and grows into it’s full potential. This is where you intuition comes in. Follow her. She is always right.
Part of the idea I had for the Women to Women Project was to give a sewing machine to a group of women in a remote village, plus all the necessary items like fabric, pins, needles, scissors etc., and teach them how to sew. Show the women how to make basic bags which they may be able to sell to the tourists.
An initial meeting with ADRA, (Adventist Development and Relief Agency) who I thought may be an ‘umbrella charity’ made me realise that that the logistical costs of running a small, stand alone project in a small remote town, was not feasible. A large portion of the $950 I had raised would be lost on fuel and car hire.
I also learned that it’s one thing to teach people a skill but who will help them after I leave Mongolia? And I had other questions, like what if they WANT to learn?
Will the women I teach feel motivated to continue? What happens if the machine breaks down? Who will market their product? The potential of so many problems and pitfalls to occur loomed large.
My idea was to attempt to create something long term and sustainable, not to carry this project out, in a bloody minded way, just so it would go how ‘I thought it should’. Seems that I would have to drastically alter my plan.
For the next month I co-ordinated my Mongolian Tour and tucked the project into another space in my head and I did not visit it. I was busy and focussed on the tour and looking after my travelling guests.
At the end of July as my wonderful travelling women guests flew away back to Australia. My thoughts veered back to the ‘Project’ and how much time I had before a cold Winter would blanket everything, including the ‘Project’, with snow. My feeling was that I should try to set up another meeting with a very busy Irene.
I could see that what Mary and Martha was achieving and it was very clear that they were making a massive difference to hundreds of people in real terms and it could only expand. Sitting together with a cappachino (yes they made yummy ones in Mongolia), this is how our conversation went-
“So what are the future plans for Mary and Martha?”, I asked Irene.
“Well, we’ve taken on the extra shop and it’s a trial, just to see if we have enough business to keep it going. If we have a bigger space then we can offer more Mongolian Artisans a place to sell their goods”.
“We have plans to expand the product range with some western style beautifully cut jackets for women, with a Mongolian influence and also want to make some small cosmetic travel bags from silky fabrics.”
“What do you need to begin this operation?”, I asked. “An industrial overlocker!” “How much do you think an overlocker will cost?”……………….
This Winter an intelligent, skilled young woman who is deaf and cannot speak, will be sewing some exquisite jackets for Mary and Martha with the help of a new overlocker. Money to help her feed, educate and care for her two children.
So this is how the funds which I raised in Australia was able to buy a new heavy duty Industrial overlocker for $505. We also contributed $200.00 towards, fabric to get the project started. I also spent $150.00, purchasing a variety of styles of coin purses and shoulder bags to resell for next years project and also came home with $90 left over, which will be used towards next years project. Money well spent.
After asking myself, where can I be of the greatest assistance for 2015? Unequivocally, it is to support Irene and Bill with their work. Irene and Bill are already doing it! I am not going to reinvent the wheel. As they expand they will be able to assist more Mongolians to gain a greater quality of life.
If you ever go to Mongolia and come in by train on the Trans Siberian Railway, as the train pulls in you will see a quiet, fair haired unassuming woman, with an open, smiling face standing on the platform with small leaflets in her hand. She will offer you one, smile brightly and say thank you in a broad lilting Scottish accent. On the little flyer you will see MARY and MARTHA and a wee map showing you where to find the store. This is Irene….Strong, humble and an inspiration
If you’d like to support this venture in any shape or form, Please contact me. I have some unique and beautiful items to sell to raise some funds for next year. Please contact me through my website. I will also continue to sew some bags and I also have an Exciting and Grand Fund Raising Idea.
Keep you posted.
And Come to Mongolia with me in August 2015. Its AMAZING!!
Contact Rensina van den Heuvel firstname.lastname@example.org
www.womenstraveladventures.com.au Phone: ++ 61 7 49502182