KIERAN ANDREW KHAN
Conflict Women is the result of Asiya Mohammed’s passion and extensive immersion in the fields of international relations, diplomacy, business and women’s rights. With an apparent rise in domestic abuse cases and crimes of passion, this social entrepreneur is standing at the centre of the convergence point where ethical fashion and women empowerment collide.
Launched in 2014, Conflict Women is a social business that trains women who have experienced rape or domestic abuse in jewellry making, business development and conflict transformation through its award-winning Butterfly Project. Survivors receive training every six weeks, and create products that are sold online locally and internationally in return for a monthly income. The path to Conflict Women was one of vision and action for Mohammed as she detailed, “As a business student at St Stephen’s College in Princes Town, my natural choice was to pursue management or law but after searching I decided on international relations at Lehigh University instead, not fully understanding what it was at the time.” That set her on a path across numerous disciplines and jobs, ranging from working with USAID/ DPK Consulting and UNICEF, to working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs here at home.
“I got to a point where I realised I was spending my days with ambassadors, diplomats and government officials crafting policies, preparing reports on Government’s implementation of its human rights commitments, but what I was more worried about was violence against women happening on the ground. I felt removed from the grassroots and confined to glass buildings, which I was not satisfied with. Violence against women was on the rise and I questioned the effectiveness of UNGA resolutions or country reports on UN conventions in making a real difference to the most vulnerable women. I simply wasn’t willing to accept the status quo and refused to accept a Trinidad and Tobago where violence against women was the norm,” Mohammed explained. “The people,” she felt, “mattered more than the policies.”
“My life-changing moment happened in the Democratic Republic of Congo a few years before when I was asked to help facilitate a workshop for rape survivors. Many of us have that aha! moment where you realise the path you should take and this was mine. That experience percolated in my mind for the next three years and when I was selected to participate in the One Young World Summit where I met (former UN secretary general) Kofi Annan, (Nobel Peace Prize winner and Bangladeshi social entrepreneur) Professor Muhammad Yunus and (entrepreneur and philanthropist) Richard Branson.
"I was particularly taken by Branson as well as by Yunus.” The latter had provided scholarships for the children of poverty-stricken Bangladeshi women, who had benefited from micro-finance loans through the Grameen Bank, to attend the same conference. “I was in awe of the change they had created. My undergraduate mentor and advisor at Lehigh University often said ‘Find the lever that generates the most change when you turn it,’ and Branson and Yunus were creating massive social change through entrepreneurship and that resonated with me. I realised that I didn’t need to be part of a system. Instead I could create my own system.”
Combining her idea with experiences gleaned from her work and travels, Conflict Women was created initially using her personal savings. The initiative would later gain the attention of the Idea2Innovation competition from the Ministry of Planning and Development, which helped them to fund their early start. The model used today, has trained survivors in various jewellery-making techniques from wire-bending and bead-weaving to the Japanese technique of art clay silver, taught via a German goldsmith and his wife who reside here. The women in turn produce pieces that are retailed globally online and have been guaranteed a monthly income for up to a year.
“It’s amazing work,” Mohammed said of the last four years, “I love it. And I always believed that the survivors could make the type of jewellery we could retail. I remember being told that my vision was impossible and that survivors would never produce jewellry that could be retailed at Stechers or Normandie Hotel. I remember facing our first supply chain challenge and being in tears –which another local entrepreneur spun as a positive – having more demand than supply,” she added with a laugh. “We had difficulty in finding our first partners. But impossible becomes possible when it’s done and with persistence we overcame all these obstacles.” She also recalled the very simple start, “We received the charity booth at Upmarket for Mother’s Day and sold butterfly crotchet earrings in all different colours made by our very first survivor. It took time and effort, the learning curve was steep and great learning came from interacting with resilient and innovative artisans and entrepreneurs at UpMarket, Eastern Market, the South Side Expo and the Southern Market,” she added, for whom she expressed her deep admiration.”
Conflict Women has stirred global and national attention, most recently with Mohammed delivering a feature speech at Deutsch Bank in Germany for International Women’s Day and speaking on the cost of silence at TEDx Port of Spain. Their work was recently highlighted at the Commonwealth Big Lunch Forum hosted by the British High Commissioner to Trinidad and Tobago, H.E. Tim Stew, where Conflict Women advisor Sian Raghoo pitched its latest micro-finance programme for survivors, MULTIPLY, to potential private and public sector partners. Also in the audience lending support was Conflict Women’s brand ambassador, Giselle Laronde-West.
“We have our sights set on improving the organisation, streamlining it further and of course expanding globally has always been a part of our vision. There is a lot of work to be done locally. When I started on this journey, violence against women wasn’t as high as it is now. I see red flags that can cause further an escalation. Trinidad and Tobago must get our policy and implementation right. Perpetrators have to face justice for committing crimes, otherwise there will be no deterring factor.”
In closing, with her eyes set on a very bright future, Mohammed added, “Despite all I have seen and all that I have been through, I’m still an idealist. I really and truly believe that we can create the world we choose – we just have to be willing to fight for it.”
For more information visit www.conflictwomen.com. You can also find Conflict Women on Facebook and Instagram.