Sewing for Change

By Caterina Monti
People said that the fabric wouldn't be enough So when we started, we were a bit scared to cut the fabric But, when we delivered (an order) to the first school, then we realized that everything went fine. Orbelina Alberto, sewing workshop Los Potrerillos. Photo: Claudia Barrientos/Oxfam

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“De que podemos,podemos!”

Amid the clatter of sewing machines and the swish of scissors, those words—“yes we can”-- have been inspiring a team of Salvadoran seamstresses to ignore the naysayers, set aside their fears, and prove that with hard work and a bit of organization they can change their lives.

The women are members of a small workshop in the community of Cantón Los Potrerillos, one of five such workshops scattered across the Department of Chalatenango, El Salvador, that formed recently to take advantage of a sudden opportunity: the need for thousands of school uniforms in a plan announced by the government.

Who could make them?

Oxfam and its local partner, the Association for the Entrepreneurial Development of Producers and Traders, known by its Spanish acronym ADEPROCCA, knew just who should be tapped: people hungry for work--sewers from the savings groups established a couple of years before. Oxfam helped initiate the groups through its Saving for Change program. Offering people guidance on how to save small amounts of their own money and make loans to each other, Saving for Change can serve as a launching pad for small businesses and individual independence.

All told, 49 women and one man from Chalatenango answered the government call. Their participation in some of the 360 savings groups in the area prepared them, in part, for the challenges ahead. With the help of Oxfam and ADERPROCCA, the sewers organized themselves into five workshops and bid on the national project, securing work in their communities and neighboring ones.

In just six months, the workshops cranked out 5,000 uniforms.

Facing their fears

But it took some daring for the women to imagine themselves as competitive seamstresses, going after projects that demanded careful resource management and the production of large volumes of high-quality goods. One of the first steps was to master their fear.

“They will put you in jail if you ruin the fabric,” warned the naysayers.

“You will get fined,” said others.

“There is not much fabric. There will not be enough.”

Listening to all of that, Orbelina Alberto faced the yardage before her with trepidation. But confidence soon flowed.

“When we started, we were a bit scared to cut the fabric,” she said. “But when we delivered (an order) to the first school, then we realized everything went fine.”

Alberto is one of the seamstresses in the Cantón Los Potrerillos workshop. Its leader is 33-year-old Javier Sosa, the sole man who started with the project and who has been working as a tailor for more than half his life.

Until now, Sosa had never had a chance to work on an order of this size—and the challenges were daunting at times. Being the most experienced in the workshop, Sosa had to guide the others and correct them repeatedly, all of which led, inevitably, to some tension. But gradually, the sewers learned each other’s ways of working and all of them stayed focused on their objective: to meet their deadline and deliver uniforms of high quality.

But Sosa doesn’t deny the pressure he felt.

“We had to make trips to measure them all (the students). It gives you a headache,” he said.

Alberto, it turned out, had a knack for calming everyone’s nerves—and found herself stepping into the role of production organizer and cost controller. And when the group ran out of money for materials—they needed thread and zippers to finish the job—they turned to their local savings group for a loan of $100, which they have since paid back.

“It’s not only people in San Salvador who can do it, we can to,” said Sosa of all that his workshop has accomplished. “We can, too.”

New hope is born

For the sewers, the opportunity to participate in these workshops, to earn a regular income, and to boost their self-esteem has been life-changing.

The name of the workshop to which Maria Hemindia Zelaya belongs says it all: New Hope. Zelaya is a 41-year-old mother who won the bid for manufacturing uniforms at six schools around Caserio Los Alas. Another seamstress in the workshop secured the bid for two more schools and since January, the 10 women in the group have made 542 uniforms and plan to double that number.

Different tasks rotate among members of the group and on average, each woman has been earning between $200 and $250 a month.

For Zelaya, that means she now has the resources to pay for her son to go to college, which costs $45 a month plus $5 in transportation.

“New Hope means that we have today, with this program, the hope of not going back to unemployment,” says Zelaya

And with the income that Élida Cerros is earning, it means her family can stay together. Her husband, who has seasonal employment only, working in a corn field, had been mulling the necessity of emigrating to find more work. Now, the family can stay where their roots are—and that has brought Cerros great peace of mind.

“I’m happy for having a job because I have him (her husband) at home and he helps me with the child,” said Cerros. “He provides the corn and the beans and I am working. We pass it well now.”

Standing up for their rights

Income isn’t all that the women have gained through this initiative. As important is what they have learned about how to stand up for their rights—especially when dealing with the directors of the schools.

Factories in the cities of Chalatenango and San Salvador were also bidding on the uniforms with prices that made it hard for others to compete against. But the seamstresses knew that price wasn’t the only consideration schools had to weigh—locally-based operations and the capacity to produce a high volume of goods were also part of the criteria for a successful bid. And the women made that case—successfully.

“They learned to demand their rights as being members of the community,” says Evelyn Salvo, program coordinator for ADEPROCCA. And today, the seamstresses of Chalatenango are not the same women they were a year ago.

“Now they have a voice,” says Salvo. “Today, each of them has something to say. They have delivered uniforms and got paid for it. They have discovered that they are capable.”