By Jessie Simonson
For far too long, the fashion industry has been focused on cheap labor, fast fashion, and mass-production. As consumers, we know very little about where our products come from. In 2008, I traveled to Uganda with four friends, and I was fortunate enough to develop a friendship with some female artisans there that were making jewelry from recycled paper. Through that friendship, 31 Bits was born, and together we began creating fashionable, quality accessories while also empowering the female community in Uganda.
With a holistic approach, we implemented a five-year program for the artisans providing them with an income and education and focusing specifically on financial education, counseling, health education, business training, and one-on-one mentorship. We work with each artisan to develop her own sustainable business in Uganda that will help meet the needs of the local economy. After five years in our program, an artisan is ready to graduate. This means she is educated, healthy, and confident, and she’s managing a business with a sustainable income.
Due to disease or effects of war, many of the women we work with were abandoned by their families and villages, leaving them in total poverty with no opportunity. In the powerful book, Half the Sky, activist Sheryl WuDunn describes microfinance opportunities as a more effective way of protecting women from abuse and raising their status in society then trying to add more laws and charities. She says, “…when women gain control over spending, less family money is devoted to instant gratification and more for education and starting small businesses.” Being a part of 31 Bits gives these women a place to belong. Many of which are neighbors now, living life together on a daily basis. On a recent visit to Uganda, one of our artisans, Abio Vicki, told us:
“Had it not been for 31 Bits, I’m not sure if I’d be alive right now. I used to think about committing suicide because I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere. Now I have a family and I belong. I’m so happy.”
Adyero Joyce had been living in immense poverty for most of her life. Now, as an artisan at 31 Bits, she’s providing for her two daughters and saving to go back to school to further her own education. Joyce recently told us:
“My life has really changed. Before, I sat at home by myself and thought about my problems… Now I’m living joyfully and my kids and job make me happy. My life has changed in all aspects, not just financially. I want to thank all of you. What you have done in the world is so great, not just Uganda, but the world. When you give something to a woman, she is a mother and is going to pass it on to her family. What you’re doing is so, so big.”
31 Bits was founded on the belief that fashion can be a powerful tool for both the makers and the consumers. As International Women’s Day approaches, I can’t help but reflect on the 53 amazing women that have already graduated from the 31 Bits program. Watching these women utilize their own talents and skills to rise above poverty, build their businesses in Uganda, play a crucial part in growing the local economy, and fostering a sense of community has been nothing short of inspirational. Through employment and education, these women are redefining long-term sustainability for both themselves and their families.
Graduation Ceremony for Ugandan Women Who Completed 5-Year Program
Jessie Simonson is the Co-Founder and Brand Director of 31 Bits, who was inspired to launch her jewelry line alongside her four best friends after they traveled as college students to Uganda