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Ten years ago there were only two options for the women of La Boquilla, a poor neighborhood in Cartagena, Colombia. The choice was simple: either a woman stayed home, bore children, cleaned and served her husband; or she could sell herself sexually. Thankfully, this has now changed.
Ten years ago, at the age of 30, Esilda Rodriguez was widowed and began taking a course in crafts, sponsored by the government of Colombia. Upon completion, she encouraged other women in the community to take the craft course and together, these eight women formed a collective called DAMARTES (Damas y Madres del Arte – “Women and Mothers of Art”). Their object was to make sustainable crafts from the abundance of coconuts and other natural seeds and nuts that lie uncalled on the local beaches. The women were excited and passionate about their idea and worked tirelessly. The men, however, were not so happy and the effort was met with tremendous resistance. In fact, it was a disaster for the women. They were working without income, without support, and without proper tools, while the men objected vehemently and often with force.
Yet these women of DAMARTES stood firm and with patience and enthusiasm, they continued to make their beautiful and sustainable goods with coconut shells, coconut fiber, palm rice, rice fiber, wood, and local seeds. Finally and luckily, they received a contract from a local bank which they quickly spent on more education, equipment, and paying back any prior creditors. They earned no money, but were determined to achieve financial independence so they continued their efforts. After a second contract from a local insurance company, they finally experienced a profit.
Then, the husbands changed their attitudes. They were fully on board as televisions and washing machines arrived at their humble huts. The women even purchased new roofs and turned their wooden walls to concrete. Today, the men have turned out to be not only supportive, but well-involved. In fact, the whole community is proud of DAMARTES.
I have just returned from Cartagena and have had the honor of meeting these extraordinary women who are my inspiration and heroes. From a grassroots brave cohort of eight women, with only a crafts course under their belt, they were able to change the social fabric of an entire community. They have now made it possible for women in La Boquilla to have choices. These eight women have grown to include many more who are educating the younger generations and there is now a waiting list of women who want to join DAMARTES and be inspired to make their lives better. These women are vibrant, alive, warm, giving, and lovely.
The message is simple and one of success, which can be replicated: with support we can be brave, follow our passions, and ultimately be self-empowering. We do not have to live with the status quo. We can better our lives. We are all capable of enacting profound change, if we only take the first step.