Corpses covered the countryside, shrouded in banana leaves to thwart aerial photographers—corpses that had once made up about 20 percent of the population, murdered by roughly 200,000 civilians enticed by promises of food and appropriated land, to kill their neighbors, friends and relatives. Roadblocks barred the hope of escape. In roughly 100 days, nearly one million people were murdered and an estimated quarter million women were raped.
This was 1994 Rwanda, when the world stood by as a nation beset by an immense labor divide between the Hutus crop-growers and Tutsis herdsmen perpetrated a ruthless genocide. All Hutu moderates, suspected- and self-proclaimed Tutsi civilians were systematically murdered.
Corpses have since been decayed and buried everywhere from the Ruhango Memorial Site in Kinazi, Rwanda, to Lambu, Kasensero and Ggolo—three sites in Uganda, where bodies that washed ashore Lake Victoria in 2010 were exhumed.
And though the last body was buried, the repercussions of the women used as weapons of war are rife nonetheless. Many were left widows, single mothers who sometimes carried the children of their rapists, or orphaned teens; 70 percent contracted HIV and AIDS as a result of rampant raping.
“The Rwandan women face extraordinary circumstances of reconstruction after the genocide,” said Francine LeFrak, former filmmaker who spent years studying the genocide, filming and producing 100 Days of Darkness. Due to Hotel Rwanda, LeFrak’s film never came to fruition, but she became a fascinated student, infatuated by the courage of Rwandan Genocide survivors and enthralled by the spirit of the country. Henceforth, she founded Same Sky, a trade-not-aid initiative that provides both education and opportunity for women and girls seeking self-sufficiency.
“I simply couldn’t let Rwanda go. In particular, I had been touched by the story of Rwanda’s women—a story that exemplified the power that women have to change the entire direction of a war-torn country and reclaim peace. This is when I came up with the idea for Same Sky, with the premise that all women are living under the Same Sky,” she said. “Within our collective we have women who are both Hutu and Tutsi—some have had issues of family members killing other family members during the genocide. The women are rebuilding and learning to live in peace.”
Same Sky offers employment and thus effectuates social change by way of jewelry. Artisans, who are welcomed and can leave whenever, are educated and trained to fashion necklaces and bracelets worn by faces like Jennifer Garner and Jessica Alba to Ben Affleck and Bono.
“Talent is everywhere; opportunity isn’t. The women are masters in their craft of finely crocheting jewelry…They have all discovered their individual talents, from managing and accounting to designing. For the most part, women are in need of a place to exercise their talents,” LeFrak said. “We see firsthand that real change happens with the dignity of work and the freedom of being self-sufficient.”
And, according to LeFrak, the dignity gained is readily apparent.
“When I first met one of our artisans, Brigitte, she was painfully thin, very shy, very down, and she was living as an orphan. She had no family and no siblings. During the genocide, a Hutu general took Brigitte as a sex slave at age 15. She had survived rape, borne children from it and had difficulty nurturing them in the way they needed—she had no means to provide for them and struggled daily with finding her purpose as she reconciled the horrors of the genocide. In 1996, Brigitte had just found out that she was diagnosed HIV+ and was experiencing debilitating migraines from an intense head injury she received during the genocide,” LeFrak explained. “After a few months working at Same Sky, she became a whole new person. She has put on weight; she can now make eye contact and she has become a confident woman. Brigitte recently told me she feels a reason to live; she is always eager to tell me about her kids, to show me pictures; she is so proud to be a woman doing business.”
Brigitte and the other artisans earn 15 to 20 times the average wage in Sub-Saharan Africa, and 100 percent of Same Sky’s net proceeds are reinvested to help evermore women and girls via their “hand-up not hand-out” strategy. Today, 120 employees work typical Rwandan workdays—approximately eight hours a day, six days a week, in collectives that are deemed key to empowerment. While the women crochet, they’re able to engage in critical conversations—how to take their HIV medication, open bank accounts or handle domestic violence.
“I believe a job is the best philanthropy. Not only do these purchases result in necessities like clean water and food, but Same Sky also provides a sustainable income and a potential to save for the future. The women are now opening bank accounts, getting email addresses and planning for their futures,” LeFrak said. “The true value of a Same Sky bracelet is empowerment.”
The value of a bracelet for buyers is, too, immense. A crocheted bracelet ties you to courageous women a world away—a beautiful piece of jewelry made more beautiful by the connection it signifies.
With any purchase of Same Sky beaded jewelry, buyers are able to provide artisans with a sustainable income that is far greater than the average living wage earned in Sub-Saharan Africa. It allows them access to food, shelter, electricity, healthcare and education. For example, a “Prosperity Bracelet” provides an artisan access to clean water for a month; a “Sky Necklace” sends her child to school for a year and an “Infinity Bracelet” gives her a salary to buy her family food for a month.
But LeFrak also divulged the biggest challenge: building the demand for ethical shopping. “The jewelry is beautiful and those who shop find themselves addicted—in fact, 52 percent of Same Sky shoppers are return customers. But we live in a world full of bargain shoppers, conveying the message of conscious consumerism is a huge aspiration of ours,” she said. “In the future, we would really like to open a store in Rwanda for the women to be able to sell their own products.”