Last year’s 10th anniversary celebration of Folk Art Market | Santa Fe saw more than its share of attendant dignitaries. Among them was Ambassador Melanne Verveer, who was appointed by President Obama in 2009 as the first ever U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues at the Department of State.
Working with former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Verveer traveled to nearly 60 countries to coordinate foreign policy issues and activities related to the political, economic and social advancement of women. Verveer, who is currently the director of Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security, was also instrumental in launching the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise, an initiative founded through the U.S. Department of State and The Aspen Institute.
As the keynote speaker at last year’s market’s One World Dinner, Verveer shone a light on the importance of artisans in the global marketplace, pointing out that the artisan sector is the second largest employer in the developing world, after agriculture, and often the primary source of income “In addition to creating jobs,” she noted, “artisan production … fosters economic communities and preserves ancient techniques and cultures that are absolutely essential for healthy and sustainable development.”
The Afghan embroidery business Kandahar Treasure, founded by Rangina Hamidi, was one of the enterprises Verveer acknowledged at the event. Based in Kandahar, which Verveer acknowledged is “one of the most dangerous places in the world,” Kandahar Treasure is woman-owned and -operated — the first enterprise of its kind in the area. The ambassador marveled at the company’s ability to turn traditional fine-needle embroidery into a real income for many hundreds of women. “If Afghanistan is going to have a better future … it will not happen without the women,” she said, “who are more than half of the country, many of whom have suffered greatly. But as one of them said to me one night, sitting in Kabul, ‘Stop looking at us as victims, and look at us as the leaders that we are.’”
Verveer also lauded the Rwandan export company Gahaya Links, co-founded by sisters Janet Nkubana and Joy Ndunguste. The ambassador noted that, after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the majority of the population consisted of widows with minimal income. “Weavers from both sides of the conflict organized basketweaving groups to create those beautiful, traditional sisal baskets made both by the Hutus and Tutsis. And they were working together to heal and rebuild their lives in the process and started weaving associations to expand training for women in this art.” Gahaya Links began with 27 women in 2004 and has grown to employing over 4,500.
When Verveer was at the market last year, she ran into friends from SEWA, the India-based Self-Employed Women’s Association, which has more than a million and a half members. “Many of them started as rag pickers,” Vervenne noted, then told a story about visiting the association in India. “I remember being there once years ago with Hillary Clinton, and she said to the women, ‘How has your life been changed?’ And one woman stood up, looking as proud as proud could be. She had literally come from misery. And she said, ‘I am no longer afraid.’ … The power and self-confidence that comes from economic independence is something all of us can understand.”
Verveer addressed the challenges many artisans face when their work is devalued. “Because artisan work is part of that informal economy, it often doesn’t count,” she said, and used an example from one of her trips with Clinton, when an economics minister told the secretary of state repeatedly that women had no role in the country’s economy. “So [Clinton] had had quite enough of this, and she said to him, ‘I’m looking out the window of this van, and as far as the eye can see, it’s women working, some of them in agriculture and many of them as artisans, using their skills to go to market with what they can sell. If they stopped working for one day, your country would stop.’”
Describing artisans at the Folk Art Market as “growth accelerators” for their countries, Verveer cited a study called “The Third Billion,” which described “the untapped potential of a billion people, mostly women, who are on the cusp of becoming a very powerful economic force to rival that of China and India if only they are empowered. And we know that what this market has done has a great deal to say about empowerment.”