US en­trepreneur helps change lives of abused women

China Daily (Canada) - - EXPATS - By CHINA DAILY

An Amer­i­can en­trepreneur is help­ing vul­ner­a­ble and abused women to get their lives back on track by of­fer­ing them work at her Bei­jing jew­elry com­pany.

Jenny McGee launched Starfish in 2007 and has so far helped 100 women, many of whom were tricked into work­ing in the sex trade af­ter mov­ing to the Chi­nese cap­i­tal from the coun­try­side.

The 38-year-old pro­vides them with jobs mak­ing jew­elry to be sold in China, the United States, Aus­tralia and New Zealand, as well as ac­com­mo­da­tion, train­ing and coun­sel­ing.

“We train them so that they can get op­por­tu­ni­ties to work in other com­pa­nies and start new lives, which we’re re­ally happy to see,” she said. “They feel proud that peo­ple are buy­ing the prod­ucts they make not out of pity, but be­cause it’s re­ally good jew­elry.”

Starfish’s Bei­jing work­shop cur­rently em­ploy­ees 15 women, while an­other 15 are based at the com­pany’s of­fice in cen­tral He­nan prov­ince. The youngest is 20, the el­dest is 45, and each earns from 2,500 yuan to more than 4,000 yuan ($390 to $630) a month.

McGee, of Goshen, In­di­ana, first ar­rived in China in 2001 on a stu­dent ex­change pro­gram. She re­turned the next year, this time with her hus­band, to study Man­darin at Bei­jing For­eign Stud­ies Univer­sity.

Around the time she launched her busi­ness, she started to learn more about women from poor ru­ral ar­eas in cen­tral and western China who aban­don their school­ing and mi­grate to large ci­ties to find work to sup­port their fam­i­lies.

Par­ents in the Chi­nese coun­try­side, who have largely been ex­empt from the coun­try’s 30-year fam­ily-palnning pol­icy, tend to pre­fer boys and some will con­tinue hav­ing chil­dren un­til they have a son. This can lead to large house­holds.

McGee said many of the women she has worked with were sent to Bei­jing by their fam­i­lies to earn a de­cent salary but in­stead had been tricked into work­ing at il­licit “hair sa­lons” and “mas­sage par­lors” that of­fered sex­ual ser­vices.

“Th­ese girls felt it their obli­ga­tion to feed their fam­ily,” she said. “They gave up their chance to study so that their broth­ers could get a bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion … or get mar­ried.”

De­ter­mined to help out, the Amer­i­can be­gan vis­it­ing vul­ner­a­ble women and of­fer­ing them an al­ter­na­tive.

“We took them flow­ers. I found most just wanted to feel like some­body cared,” she said, adding that it gen­er­ally takes time to win the women’s trust be­cause most are sen­si­tive about their back­grounds and do not want to get tricked again.

Amy, one of the women work­ing at Starfish, said her fa­ther walked out on her fam­ily when she was young and that her step­fa­ther had abused her. She left home at 15 and turned to pros­ti­tu­tion to earn a liv­ing.

“When I thought I’d reached my end, I met Jenny McGee,” she re­called. “Now I work hard at Starfish and I’m happy. I’m able to laugh and cry again — not tears of sad­ness but joy. I cel­e­brated my 21st birth­day here. It was the first time some­one made me a birth­day cake and sang to me. For the first time I feel that peo­ple care about me and love me un­con­di­tion­ally.”

Sev­eral Chi­nese man­agers and Amer­i­can de­sign­ers also work at the work­shops in Bei­jing and He­nan to teach the women manufacturing, de­sign, ac­count­ing, pho­tog­ra­phy and pro­duc­tion man­age­ment. The com­pany also of­fers cour­ses in English, as well as grants to fur­ther their ed­u­ca­tion, and health­care in­sur­ance.

Over the years, many work­ers have re­gained their self-con­fi­dence and left Starfish — some af­ter sev­eral years, some af­ter just a few months — to start new jobs and new lives with hus­bands who ac­cept and un­der­stand their past.

“If any of them have any dif­fi­cul­ties in their fam­i­lies or work, they can come back to our dor­mi­tory im­me­di­ately,” said Wu Xiaol­ing, a man­ager at the Bei­jing work­shop for six years. “This is where they feel safe and cared for.”

She said the com­pany reg­u­larly or­ga­nizes fun ac­tiv­i­ties for the women to help heal the wounds from their past. “Re­cently they per­formed a fash­ion show (in Bei­jing),” she said. “They all got dressed up and did each other’s makeup. They were all so beau­ti­ful. It was re­ally touch­ing. Th­ese girls give me so much hap­pi­ness.”

When asked about her un­der­stand­ing of the com­pany phi­los­o­phy, Wu re­peated the old maxim: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a life­time.

“We’re not a char­ity,” she said. “We help th­ese women by teach­ing them to fish, not by ex­pos­ing their pain and giv­ing them a fish.”

McGee ex­plained that the name of her jew­elry com­pany was also in­spired by an old tale: “An el­derly man came upon a young boy who was throw­ing starfish that had been washed ashore back in to the ocean. He asked the boy, ‘There are thou­sands of starfish and only one of you, what dif­fer­ence can you make?’ The boy picked up a starfish, tossed it into the wa­ter and said, ‘I made a dif­fer­ence to that one’.

“We’ll go on help­ing, get­ting the starfish back to the wa­ter, and I hope one day I’ll see Chi­nese par­ents all cel­e­brate the birth of their daugh­ters and … see girls share the same op­por­tu­ni­ties as boys do,” she added.

Yan Dongjie con­trib­uted to this story.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Starfish work­shop helps vul­ner­a­ble and abused women find pro­duc­tive and happy lives.

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