The unbelievable strength of women

People who know me, know why Cool Mom Picks is such a labor of love. As much as I love shopping and design and discovering some wonderful something-or-other that I know will help other moms, my real passion is supporting small business. Especially those run by women and mothers trying to support their families.

It’s one of the things that’s been so special for me this week in Ethiopia.

fashionABLE scarves in Ethiopia

 I watched my mother run her own business when I was a kid; a small handmade clothing label for children that she operated out of our attic. The same feelings bubbled up again in 1999, the first time we traveled together to Sarajevo, and talked to those seeking rehabilitation and aid through Women For Women International. We were there in part to hear their stories and bear witness, but also to give them practical tips on making and marketing scarves, slippers and other accessories that might have value in the US.

These weren’t ordinary women; they were post-war refugees just more than 3 years after the signing of the Dayton Accord. Some lived in bombed out homes. Some had no homes. Many had been sexually abused by soldiers. Some lost children. Most lost husbands. My dear friend Tima called herself one of the lucky ones, because she still had her husband. Even if her whole extended family–perhaps 10 of them–were squatting together in a two room Serbian house that they could be evicted from every day.

One of the lucky ones.

And then she my held hand in hers and pressed it to her throat so I could feel the metal shrapnel that lodged there.

I was 31. I had never imagined experiencing such a thing. Tim and I both had those things in common.

What still stays with me however, me was how amazingly strong these women were. Even at a time when they had every right to fall apart. They came to the center and leaned on one another for support, for therapy, to talk through the trauma over strong coffee and Drina cigarettes. And then they got on with their lives, devoting their energy to knitting, looming, crochet, so that they might acquire a skill that could keep their families clothed and fed.

You can imagine the flashbacks I had all morning today, spending time with the workers and staff making scarves for the non-profit, FashionABLE.

fashionABLE scarves in Ethiopia

As I wrote in my post about fashionABLE last week, when I first received one of their beautiful scarves from the ONE Moms I ran right to my computer to learn more about the company and spread the world. They represent every value I love.

Visit the website and what you see is the result of their efforts: gorgeous, on-trend scarves (seriously, please buy one…or twenty) all beautifully handmade and hand dyed, with hang tags personally signed by the artist.

 Dig further and you learn that it’s a non-profit, meaning all the proceeds go towards helping the artisans, not only through wages but with medical care, medicine for TB or HIV, counseling, a housing stipend, educational tools and daycare for their children.

Meeting these women in person, in another decade, another continent, the universe is presenting me with yet another remarkable opportunity to soak in  strength and resilience of women.

Two of the women from fashionABLE plainly described their lives to us before they connected with Women at Risk and FashionABLE. Saba is 23. She as educated and living well until she turned 11 and her father died. The money ran out, her mother could no longer care for her, and moved away to live with relatives who never accepted her as their own. She tried waiting tables but couldn’t make ends meet. That’s when a neighbor introduced her to the far more lucrative prospect of commercial sex work.

We were informed that in Adis, tricks start at 25-30 cents. Only the highest paid prostitutes earn $15 for a single act.

There are 150,000 prostitutes in Adis. And just under 75% of them are HIV positive.

Can you imagine feeling like that’s the most reasonable choice for your survival? Selling your body for 25 cents? Well now it’s not. When you buy a Saba scarf, you are giving her a better choice. You can also picture the gorgeous woman here. Meet Saba.

Another woman we met, Mulu, came to commercial sex work through a different and painful route. It became clear that with 20 women at FashionABLE right now, cach of them has a different story. Each of them has a same story.

And so far, they all have the same ending: a job. A trade. Confidence. Pride.

In fact 96% of the women working with FashionABLE through the years have made it through the program and stayed out of commercial sex work.

It’s not because it’s easy–it’s not. In fact a lot of them had to be retrained to work during the day and sleep during the night. The reason they’re succeeding is because of that strength. Because of that pride.

You couldn’t miss it on their faces. You couldn’t miss it in the quality of their work.

fashionABLE scarves in Ethiopia

fashionABLE photo by Karen Walrond

 I don’t think one of us left their workshop with fewer than ten scarves each, to bring home for friends and family.

I wrote on Cool Mom Picks that at, the emphasis is on able. Now, I’m realizing the emphasis is equally on live.


I’m currently visiting Ethiopia courtesy of ONE, a nonpartisan advocacy organization fighting extreme poverty and preventable disease, especially in Africa. The more people who spread the word, the louder our voices, the more governments and foundations will keep the aid coming. If you can amplify our voices by tweeting, reposting, sharing our posts with your own networks it’s all they ask of you–never money.

Learn more at the ONEMoms blog, see the rest of the trip team’s blogs, and follow (and use!) the hashtag #ONEMoms on Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram.

[photos c Liz Gumbinner; last photo of fabric c Karen Walrond]


48 thoughts on “The unbelievable strength of women”

    1. They deserve it Dawn. I know you know that. I know how personal this all is for you. Thank you for your support, always.

  1. I can’t wait to get one of these! I’ve shared the link with everyone I know!! I’m going to try and not comment on how beautiful each of these stories are this whole week so today I am going to comment on how moving these women’s stories are and thank you again for telling them.

    1. Thank you so much Julie–but if you did all week I’d be okay with that.

      The scarves are gorgeous and a great value. And psst…a few cool new ones coming out for holidays.

  2. Saba’s story had me in tears. Thank you for sharing these experiences and allowing us to be on this trip with you.

  3. Such incredible stories you’re sharing so beautifully, Liz. And now I know what my kids’ teachers are getting for Christmas. And my mom. And my sisters. And, and, and…

  4. Thank you for sharing your experiences (of a lifetime) with us…this will be epic for Thalia and Sage to look back on one day about their mom.

    ….and 2 scarves are on the way to me. R

  5. I’m recommending to everyone that they visit the website and buy the FashionABLE scarves – for themselves, their family, friends, neighbors, acquaintances. Thank you for sharing their stories, photos all that they’re working so hard to build. xo

  6. These women are amazing. I am writing about this organization and linking to it now – thank you so much for such important work.

  7. Thank you for sharing these stories and giving us an opportunity to do a little bit of good from so far away.

    I’ve been following your blog for a long time now, commenting for the first time.. Needless to say, I love your writing, especially on moral and heavy topics.. It gives me an opportunity to reflect on my own life as a global citizen and take action.

    Anu (from Australia)

  8. Incredible stories of triumph and the strength of the human spirit… thank you for sharing. A scarf is on its way to my mom for her birthday.

  9. Reading this brought images of the women we met in Haiti this year that were pushing along amidst the devastation and abuse around them. All they wanted was for us not to give them fish, but to teach them how to fish. Their strength is real. They do it just to LIVE. And with a smile, to boot.
    I received a scarf from ONE made by Etanesh. I love it so and will share a couple of posts about it and the ONE Moms this week. It’s all about conscious purchasing.
    Thank you for sharing this with us in the middle of your travels!!

  10. 96%. That’s one heckuva success rate.

    I’ve long loved the fair trade products we’ve featured on Cool Mom Picks. I’ve explained to fellow shoppers that while prices are comparable to department store and boutique items, the story and the mission behind fair trade is so compelling as to sway me. Meeting a group of women who produce these beautiful pieces, hearing their individual stories – that’s another huge reason to skip the mall and support these artisans directly.

  11. I wish, I want, I demand more of these kind of efforts for, not only women but, every man, woman and child in the world. I want the clothes (any products actually) that costs enough to support person that MADE it, and not skim all of it for every intermediary and loan provider in the chain. And yes, it takes a LOT of courage and strength to step out of shifting sand that is poverty, and we ought to support these efforts every way we can. I’m only sad that the choices for support are very limited – long gone are the times where paying more for clothes (or any other article) meant that workers had decent living wage and good health care. Choices for ethical products are still limited at the best, and we (starting with ME) have to do more in turning the tide. A propo your recent post about slavery – this is perfect example of an action that breaks that vicious cycle.

    Lets spread the word, lets make ethical products fashionable statement, because that build basic scaffolding in which these strong women can shine. I’m buying some and advertising more by gift-giving.

    Thank you Liz, for shining example.

    1. I love this comment and completely agree.

      When I visited Bangladesh, people asked if i I was going to buy the various big global brands that are manufactured there. I’m happy to say that we did our shopping at a youth training centre and at a fair trade department store.

      I’m glad that there are more initiatives around the world that are focusedon valuing the people who make the products instead of just pandering to Wall Street.

  12. Thank you, Liz. This is the power of your blog: you can change the world.

  13. If you have a chance you should visit the Women Fuel Wood Carrier’s cooperative in Addis (on the way to Mount Entoto). They also make scarves and sell them as a way to raise money to help the women who can no longer work due to injury from carrying big bundles of wood from Mount Entoto down to Addis on their backs. The scarves are beautiful as are those that make them.

    1. Thank you so much Luisa – regretfully our schedule is jam packed and spoken for. But I hope to return one day; that sounds like an amazing visit. I look forward to learning more about them.

  14. thank you for sharing this, liz. it’s all so amazing: the idea for live fashionable, that people made it happen, that it’s making a difference in so many women’s lives, and that you’re there seeing it and able to tell us all about it. the stories you shared made me tear up and so does that fact that we can make it better. this story, on your blog, reaching all of us is such an expression of the powerful love, care and hope that’s all around us, ready and waiting to be harnessed. so moving. now excuse me while i go holiday shopping.

  15. Thank you for sharing these beautiful scarves (and the stories of these beautiful women, of course), Liz. I’m buying several today, to give as holiday gifts to women in my life. I wish I could do more.

  16. I seriously have tears on my eyes right now. I have 2 kids and times are hard but I never thought that some women out there have a lot more problems and struggles than I’m having right now.

  17. Beautiful post, Liz.
    Thanks for stepping away from your family & choosing to really SEE women in another culture, living strong & courageous lives.
    We choose to open our eyes to them too. Your writing gives us a chance to respond with action.

  18. This post brought tears to my eyes, and I’m going to blame hormones.

    Really beautiful. It means so much when those self-sufficiency is valued more than charity. It takes more time, more investment, but it lasts longer and just plain feels better. Organizations that provide methods of income and clear paths to opportunity for people who need them are so important.

    In Costa Rica, I volunteered with the Rahab Foundation. It helps sex workers break free of the cycle of reliance on prostitution for income and low self-esteem, often due to abuse. If anyone wants more information, here’s the site:

  19. This is an incredible story. I now know what I’ll be buying all of the women in my family for Christmas this year. And I’ll definitely be featuring these in my holiday gift guide on my blog. So inspiring and beautiful!

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