Teaching women to sew in Liberia aligns with a workforce made up of almost exclusively women. With an emphasis on teaching women to sew, the Liberian fashion industry has the potential to be a powerful source of female empowerment. Unfortunately, it currently operates as yet another sector in which women are exploited and underpaid. To address this, A Changed World — a New York-based non-profit with a mission to end global poverty through education and textile production — launched Project Catwalk: Helping Women in Liberia Learn to Sew. This new initiative provides free sewing classes for low-income, high-demand garment production workers in Monrovia. It also equips them with the skills needed to become independent contractors and set up their own tailoring businesses. We spoke with A Changed World co-founders Sharon Chin and HeloisaEND
Why is educating women in Liberia important?
Clothing manufacturing is one of Liberia’s most profitable industries, with a trading volume of $250 million in 2016 alone. Yet, despite being essential in the production of the country’s leading export and source of employment, the sector has long been dominated by men. With most low-skilled seamstresses making as little as $5 per day, most Liberian women are unable to support themselves or their families on their salaries alone. As a result, many are forced to send their children to work in dangerous, low-paying jobs such as rice harvesting or car washing. The majority of these children are girls between the ages of 7 and 14.
What is Lapa cloth?
Lapa cloth is a type of fabric traditionally made by Liberian women. It is an essential part of the nation’s cultural heritage, with its motifs and designs having been passed down from generation to generation for centuries. Lapa is made from the bark of the paper mulberry tree, which grows naturally in abundance in West Africa. In Liberia, it is primarily produced by low-income female garment workers. Today, Lapa is mainly used to make traditional Liberian dresses called “Lapa cloth”, “Dupree”, and “men’s lambskin garment”. The apparel made from Lapa is highly prized by fashion designers and collectors around the world.
What are the benefits of teaching women to sew?
Helping women become self-sustaining through tailoring will empower them and enable them to provide for their families without having to send their children to work. Furthermore, by enabling women to earn a living and sustain themselves, this new initiative will help reduce Liberia’s dependence on garment imports and promote sustainable, long-term development. On a micro level, this project will also provide tangible benefits to the participants themselves. The classes will teach students basic sewing skills, as well as business and marketing techniques they can use to start their own tailor shops. Participants will also have access to a library stocked with sewing and design books, as well as sewing machines.
What does a typical class look like?
With the help of local contacts, A Changed World will recruit women garment workers living in Monrovia. These individuals will then be invited to participate in free, twice-weekly sewing classes. Students will receive textbooks and machine-learning training, as well as hands-on instruction, and will be evaluated by their instructors and peers. The classes will conclude when each student has completed their first garment project.
How can sewing help improve women’s lives?
By empowering low-income, high-demand garment workers to set up their own businesses, this new initiative will allow women to earn stable incomes and set their own work schedules. It will also help reduce women’s risk of exploitation, as they will be able to negotiate contracts, set their own prices, and refuse to work with clients who do not pay them fairly. In addition, by raising awareness of the benefits of sustainable, high-quality textile production, this project will help reduce the number of cheap fabric imports flooding the Liberian market. This will in turn benefit garment workers and consumers alike, as cheap fabrics are often made with harmful chemicals and synthetic fibers.
How seamstresses are exploited in Liberia
As mentioned above, Liberia’s garment industry is dominated by male garment owners and managers. These individuals employ low-skilled, predominantly female seamstresses to produce garments in their homes and backyard workshops. While these seamstresses are essential to the production of garments, they are not always treated fairly. This can be attributed to the fact that seamstresses rely on their employers for transportation from their homes to their workplaces. This gives employers the opportunity to either verbally or physically abuse workers if they are unhappy with the quality of their work.
How you can help empower women in Liberia
By donating to A Changed World’s Lapa Cloth initiative, you can help provide garment workers with the skills needed to set up their own businesses. This will enable them to earn fair and stable incomes that they can use to support their loved ones and improve their quality of life. If you are interested in learning more about this initiative and how you can get involved, you can visit the A Changed World website at changedworld.org. You can also follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Liberian women are integral to the country’s garment industry. By helping them to learn the skills needed to become self-sufficient, we can empower them and promote sustainable, long-term development. More importantly, we can help end exploitation and empower women by promoting the use of high-quality fabrics.