Every woman has a story. But sadly in some places of the world, even before a woman is born her story is written. She will only be allowed to attend primary school, then between 10 and 15 years old she will be introduced to her pre-chosen husband, she will not have access to family planning, she wil not have any opportunity to earn an income, and will silently suffer one or more various types of abuse. I meet a lot of women with this kind of story. For five years I have been traveling around the world empowering women – survivors of gender-based violence. As you can imagine, I have encountered scores of women who need help in one way or another; from war widows in Kosovo to survivors of female genital mutilation in Kenya. In fact, you do not need to travel far to find victims of domestic violence. I have came across shockingly high numbers of cases through my social work both in UK and in the mountainous Balkan country Montenegro. So if, like me, you are passionate about eradicating a specific issue, the questions “Who to help, and how to help?” may well be on your mind. So many charities, so many individuals seeking help. Added to that, it is no secret that for the last few years funding sources for equality and diversity projects, mental health, the eradication of homelessness and so on have been drying up. So there is a lot of pressure on charities to fundraise. So how can we help the causes close to our hearts?
Buy produce from the actual producers, empowered by charity
Believe me, there are plenty of organisations in every country you visit supporting this sustainable model. They are usually run by really passionate enthusiasts and volunteers, who dedicate their time to the cause. So no donations go to pay staff salaries and every penny goes to the actual project. My recent trip to India introduced me to one such project – the Sambhali Trust. They provide underprivileged Rajasthani women and girls with a basic education in English, Hindi, and Maths, as well as training in social and vocational skills (such as sewing). Gorgeous hand-made items are sold in their boutique and online. All the courses are run by volunteers from around the globe, and I have seen for myself how each penny earned goes straight back to the community, empowering not only the women (and providing an education for a whole generation of their children), but most of all it is helping shift perspectives on gender roles in a deep-rootedly patriarchal society.
Donate your items
I am always getting messages from mums who are happy to donate their kids outgrown clothes, but want to give it to people who are really in need. Well, every women’s shelter I know of is in constant need of donated clothes, nappies, and basic hygiene products – this is one way to give a second life to some of your unneeded items. Often on holidays we have read our books or done a bit of shopping and are lacking luggage space. So why not give some of it away to a local charity. I remember meeting a Kenyan lady in Tanzania, who worked in the hostel where I was staying. We both missed our sons badly, so chatted about our kids a few times over evenings. On my departure I gave her a couple of items for her son back home, and she gifted me with a huge bag of mangoes for my son. Needlessly to say, my son took them to share with his class on another continent, connecting communities via the simple act of a stranger’s kindness. In the new era when so many people are fleeing war and torture, your old sofa throw might be the warmest and fluffiest blanket for kids sleeping in a cold tent in a refugee camp
Recycle your old “sari”
Upcycling projects are another way of empowering people through donated items. “Sari connection” is a Sri Lankan charity helping women affected by war to gain financial sustainability by using your old sari to produce fashionable bags, trousers, and blouses. Many of my friends have loved receiving foldaway shopping bags from me. Throw open a colourful piece of fabric on a typically grey UK day. A win for both sides.
Share your skills and knowledge
If you are anything like me, and prefer to donate your time rather than material items, then the best way is to volunteer for a cause, even whilst on a holiday somewhere. Those couple of hours a day of shared expertise can make a huge difference, be it reading stories to sick children in hospital, or training an African NGO in marketing strategies. The choice is yours. I am concentrating on empowering women via … baking. Why through cakes? During dark days of recovery from a life-threatening illness, far away from my family and native land, baking had helped me to heal. With each cake I was getting back my former optimistic self. Day-by-day baking grew from a hobby to an obsession. Combining my three passions; a love of baking, a fascination with travel and a desire to stop gender-based violence, my social enterprise was born. I often come back from my baking trips with the notebook full of recipes. As a thank you, the women share their kitchen secrets. I am sure that you would agree that this is the biggest compliment for your work you can receive from another woman.
So many stories, so many tears, so much hopelessness in our world today. But we shall rise! Through education, through awareness, through empowerment. I do it one woman and one cake at a time.
Yana Spencer is a journalist and women’s right activist, currently based in SE Asia. She runs Tamu Bakery, a social enterprise which empowers women survivors of gender-based violence through the power of baking. Hundreds of women around the world have benefited from her innovative baking therapy sessions.