WOMEN WHO DARE

Lawyer JESSIE SMITH never stops fight­ing for the marginalis­ed, be it in court or via her fair-trade ac­ces­sories la­bel that ben­e­fits HIV+ women, says GE­ORGINA SAFE

Harper’s Bazaar (Australia) - - Contents -

Jessie Smith’s ac­ces­sories ini­tia­tive in Tan­za­nia.

When Jessie Smith meets BAZAAR at an or­ganic cafe in Syd­ney’s Surry Hills, she has come from a case at the Supreme Court of New South Wales in which she represente­d a man charged with mem­ber­ship of the PKK, a Kur­dish sec­u­lar na­tion­al­ist move­ment that has gone into bat­tle against ISIS. “I’m pas­sion­ate about the pro­tec­tion of our demo­cratic safe­guards when it comes to in­ter­na­tional ter­ror­ism, fore­most the right to a fair trial and the pre­sump­tion of in­no­cence,” Smith says. With joint con­duct of Aus­tralia’s largest ter­ror­ism and na­tional-se­cu­rity law prac­tice at Stary Nor­ton Halphen, Smith ex­plains that her job re­quires her to rep­re­sent all sides of the Syr­ian con­flict, both pro- and anti-isis, with­out fear or favour.“our wait­ing room can be an in­ter­est­ing po­lit­i­cal storm at times,” she says with a laugh.

But that’s on week­days. On week­ends, Smith is el­bow-deep in bags and bikini of­f­cuts as the founder of SEW (Sup­port­ing + Em­pow­er­ing Women), a so­cial en­ter­prise that pro­vides em­ploy­ment and em­pow­er­ment to Hiv­pos­i­tive women in Tan­za­nia. Makeup bags, clutches, totes and beach bags are among the ac­ces­sories SEW em­ploy­ees pro­duce from re­cy­cled fab­rics for a high-pro­file clien­tele in­clud­ing the Bill and Melinda Gates Foun­da­tion, the World Food Pro­gramme and the United Na­tions. SEW also col­lab­o­rates with fash­ion brands in­clud­ing Zoe El­iz­a­beth in Mel­bourne, Sidai De­signs in the UK and Naked So­ci­ety in Den­mark as part of its mis­sion to coun­ter­act stigma sur­round­ing HIV+ women by demon­strat­ing they are re­silient, in­dus­tri­ous and ca­pa­ble.“i be­lieve so­cial en­ter­prise is the most mean­ing­ful way to lift com­mu­ni­ties from poverty over the long term, and the fash­ion in­dus­try has a re­ally im­por­tant role to play,” Smith says.“with women with HIV, it’s im­por­tant to bring some­thing fem­i­nine, de­sir­able and ac­ces­si­ble to the Western mar­ket be­cause of the stigma around the virus.”

SEW em­ploys Mus­lims, Chris­tians and Ma­sai alike, and all are paid a fair price that in­cludes a load­ing to cover su­per­an­nu­a­tion con­tri­bu­tions, sick and an­nual leave, at least dou­ble the award wage and med­i­cal ex­penses. All prof­its are rein­vested into the pro­ject. Smith says,“while all of the women have HIV, they all have very dif­fer­ent life ex­pe­ri­ences — one of them is a for­mer sex slave — and they all work to­gether in a positive and dig­ni­fied en­vi­ron­ment.”

Smith es­tab­lished SEW while study­ing law at the Uni­ver­sity of Mel­bourne, after run­ning a pi­lot sewing pro­ject in a UNHCR refugee camp in West Africa in 2007. “I went over there to do some teach­ing work, but it was a very cor­rupt sys­tem to work within, so I de­cided to set up the pi­lot pro­ject to help refugee women find work,” she says.“i got a host of dis­abled refugee women to­gether and we started a lit­tle work­shop mak­ing bags and purses to sell in Mel­bourne.”

While the pro­ject was a suc­cess, its lo­ca­tion, near the bor­der of Ghana and the Ivory Coast, was highly un­sta­ble, so the fol­low­ing year Smith and a friend set up a sim­i­lar model in Tan­za­nia.there, they were rel­a­tively safer, but could still “tap into the gross dis­ad­van­tage women were ex­pe­ri­enc­ing,” she says.

Busi­ness was good for a while, but when the GFC hit, it hit fair-trade hard. As or­ders slowed from SEW’S usual sup­pli­ers such as book­shops and or­ganic food stores, Smith de­cided to switch to mak­ing con­fer­ence bags for busi­nesses with cor­po­rate so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity poli­cies. “That was a life­saver for us,” Smith says. “Busi­nesses with CSR poli­cies now bulk-or­der our $5 bags at zero risk, as they are handed out at con­fer­ences.”

With the con­fer­ence bags pro­vid­ing a steady in­come, Smith reached out to de­sign­ers in­clud­ing Zoe El­iz­a­beth’s Zoe Weir to de­sign more fash­ion­able ac­ces­sories that would grow SEW into the fu­ture. Weir, whose Mel­bourne store stocks a host of SEW makeup bags, clutches and tam­pon pouches made from Lib­er­typrint fab­ric rem­nants, says they are pop­u­lar among all ages. “I get moth­ers and daugh­ters com­ing in to­gether to buy the purses,” she says. “I hope our ex­am­ple will help other fash­ion re­tail­ers and de­sign­ers to con­sider projects in de­vel­op­ing economies.”

Smith plans to grow SEW to sup­port more women. When asked how she jug­gles the ex­pand­ing so­cial en­ter­prise with her le­gal du­ties, she quotes Joan Rosanove QC, the first woman ad­mit­ted to the bar in­vic­to­ria, in 1923:“You must have the stamina of an ox and a hide like a rhinoceros, and when they kick you in the teeth you must look as if you hadn’t no­ticed it.”

Smith is cer­tainly fol­low­ing in Rosanove’s foot­steps.

For SEW bags, visit sew­con­fer­ence­bags.org or Zoe Weir’s store, teenytiny­hut.com.au.

SEW ‘mama’ Happy. Be­low: SEW tam­pon purse, $20, and bag, $5.

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