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
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.