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Women in the World: A Follow Up with Lara Cameron

By Joanna Francis

You’ll remember that late last year, we caught up with Lara Cameron of Melbourne fabric design studio Ink & Spindle, before she took off on a study tour to Nepal. Lara was part of a tour organised by Steph Woollard, founder of Seven Women, a not-for-profit working with women with disabilities. Today, Lara is joining us again to share with us a little about her experiences in Nepal (illustrated with some of her photos!).

Lara, welcome home! Can you remind us of the purpose of your trip to Nepal, and tell us about where you visited and what you did?

Where do I start?! The whole trip felt like a lifetime worth of experiences jam packed into a mere 3 weeks! I guess generally the purpose of the trip was to learn about fair trade enterprises and production in Nepal. We visited a whole host of different fair trade businesses (felt workshops, silversmiths, craft producers, up-cyclers). We learnt about their processes, their challenges, who they employed and how they were making a difference in Nepalese society.

We also spent lots of time getting to know the Nepalese people, learning about their way of life, both in cities and rural areas.  Nepalese people are renowned for being friendly and cheerful and that definitely seems to be true. They have an infectiously warm and positive nature. Their lives don’t revolve around working, but instead they are centred around family and community. Although these people might be ‘poor’ by western standards they seem truly happier. This might sound flippant and naive but it really does seem that the simpler your life is the happier you can be. As humans (particularly Westerners) we find it so hard to be content, but having less opportunities, lofty ambitions or obsession with material goods can be somewhat liberating.


Can you tell us a little about meeting the women involved and seeing how Seven Women is supporting disadvantaged women?

Seven Women is basically set up to empower women who are disadvantaged or living with a disability. Steph is passionate about establishing business models that promote self reliance, rather than long term dependence on external aid. Her original centre EPSA used to make a lot of felt craft goods that Steph would wholesale here in Australia. Now they wholesale goods to the local market and are functioning independently, which is great.

Steph has just recently established a new Seven Women centre which is where we spent a lot of time during our trip. The new centre can house up to 10 women and also has a workspace for even more women and a shop front (plus a rooftop terrace and a veggie patch!). We had the great privilege of being able to assist in fitting out the new house and also meeting a lot of the women who live and work there. They are absolutely gorgeous, warm hearted people and a joy to work with.


photo by Kim Cartmell

Nepal4 Nepal6

Is there someone that you met that particularly inspired you, or shared their story with you of how their life had been changed by their involvement?

Well Steph is definitely an inspiring individual, but I have to say I was also very inspired by a social entrepreneur we were introduced to named Sanu Kaji. Sanu established the Foundation for Sustainable Technologies and is possibly the most endearing, enthusiastic and inspirational person we met over there! Sanu has dedicated the latter part of his career designing sustainable fuel alternatives for the Nepalese people, in particular his unique “Briquettes” which are made from a compressed combination of waste paper and biomass (sawdust, grass, leaves or rice husks etc). 1.5kg of his briquettes is the equivalent to 5-8kg of timber in terms of cooking capacity, and he is training people to make their own.


 What were some of the obvious challenges in working in an international context like this?

Gosh, where do I start? Communication is an obvious one. There are very few people in Nepal who have fluent English skills, so explaining the finer details of things is definitely a challenge. The Nepalese people also have that tendency to never say no. Very frustrating when you’re trying to figure out if or when something can be done! Culturally there are challenges too – they can have a different perspective on what constitutes “good quality”; Steph has worked very closely with her team to make sure they’re producing what a Western market would find acceptable. The other massive challenge is rolling blackouts! Most places in Kathmandu only have power about half of the day, and sometimes that allocation is largely at night time! This definitely affects productivity and turn around times – no wonder Western customers get flabbergasted when something takes 3 months longer to produce than they expected!

Did you have the opportunity to share some of what you’ve learnt through developing your own creative business here in Melbourne?

I did! I think that was my favourite part actually – getting to work alongside the women and teach them things! I went over there with a prototype for a new product – laptop sleeves made from handmade Nepalese felt. The felt they work with is just so lovely and textured and beautiful in its own right, so I thought that we should develop a product that really showcased this. I found myself sitting on the floor of the new Seven Women centre, surrounded by these cheerful and cheeky women and bits of felt and scissors and chalk and patterns, laughing at my poor Nepalese skills and our haphazard communication, generally having a ball. That was great.


Did that experience change or have any impact on the way you view your business practices here?

It did make me appreciate what we have here and how much easier it can be to produce something locally. After seeing first hand how difficult it can be to source the right things and communicate effectively to have a quality product made in a country where “quality” has a different meaning… I feel very lucky that we have the ability to produce in-house and don’t have to rely on overseas labour to do what we do.

From an emotional/personal perspective I’d like to think that witnessing the Nepalese way of life changed my perspective on life here a bit. I’d like to have a bit more relaxed pace of life, feel less like I need to constantly be keeping up with trends and what everyone else is doing, and focus more on home and family and friendships to give life meaning.

Will you have any continuing involvement with Seven Women?

I definitely plan to. I still need to ensure the new product line gets produced properly, and I’d definitely like to keep working with Steph on her product range – either hands on or just providing feedback and advice from time to time.

If you’d like more information about the work of Seven Women or their study tours to Nepal, please go to their website to find out more. And thanks Lara for sharing your experiences with us.

Joanna Francis spends most of her time hanging out with her two year old son. But she also works for a children’s foundation and has recently started her own little business making baby quilts. In the past, Joanna has worked as an aid worker in several developing countries, and is passionate about the rights of women and children. You can visit her and her blog at


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Women in the World: A Study Tour to Nepal!

By Joanna Francis

For our final Women in the World post for the year, we’re going on a little journey. A journey from an old factory in the Melbourne suburb of Kensington to the cities and remote villages of Nepal. Our travelling companion is Lara Cameron, a name that many of you will no doubt be familiar with. Lara is the co-founder of Ink & Spindle, the wonderful Melbourne boutique textile studio. Ink & Spindle produce beautiful screen printed textiles which are designed and printed by hand in an ethical and sustainable manner.

Lara Cameron (left) with Ink & Spindle co-owner Tegan Rose


In a matter of weeks, Lara will be boarding a plane and heading to Neap to take part in a study tour run by Stephanie Woollard, founder of Seven Women, a not for profit organization that employs disadvantaged women to make handcrafted items that are sold in Australia. I asked both Lara and Stephanie about the trip and the organization and here’s a little of what they had to say:

“I first met Stephanie at a different fundraising event where I heard her speak about the upcoming trip. My first thought was that it was something  that I definitely “should” do, but I was too intimidated by the prospect to apply – I knew it would involve stepping right out of my comfort zone!”, says Lara.

“But, after thinking about it for a while, considering how great an opportunity it would be, I put forward my application and was accepted to join the group.

“At the very end of 2012 Steph is taking our group of 15 participants on a study tour of fair trade enterprises. We will be meeting some amazing people who are making a difference over there and also the people whose lives have been so positively changed by what Steph has created. Steph has established her own centre – the Seven Women Skills Training Centre where we’ll be helping out for a few days with individual roles.

photo by Kim Cartmell


“I’m simultaneously excited and terrified about this trip. Having never been to a developing country before, this is going to be such an incredible, eye opening and challenging experience. Since sustainable and ethical practices are the foundation of everything that we do at Ink & Spindle, I’m really interested to see how what we see and learn over there can be applied to my own business. I am also excited about the fact that there are opportunities for me professionally as a designer to help Steph with what she is doing.

“Whilst in Nepal I’ll be taking on a small product development role, assisting Steph in expanding her range with some products that I feel confident will be well received here in Australia. I’ve worked for many years in the local design/interiors/handmade industry and I feel that I have a good grasp on what products would be viable to produce and would sell successfully here. If all goes well these products will hopefully become a part of the core range and be produced on an ongoing basis, which will provide ongoing employment for the women involved in Seven Women. I’d also be open to assisting in the design process in future if my ideas prove to be helpful!”

After travelling to Nepal in 2005, Stephanie Woollard returned to Australia and felt compelled to help some of the most marginalised and disadvantaged women living in the capital, Kathmandu.

photo courtesy of Seven Women


“I feel a moral responsibility to work with those less fortunate creating opportunities enabling them to improve theirs”, Stephanie says. “When I met these women they had nothing. There was an opportunity for capacity building and empowerment. I envisaged these women enabling themselves to raise their standard of living by having someone to help them sell their handicrafts here in Australia. I paid for the initial training and worked on design with the women. When I came back to Australia we established a group at my university, La Trobe, to sell these products and raise awareness about Fair Trade. The group grew from three volunteers to over 15 passionate, committed students whose actions have a direct impact on the lives of the women in Nepal.

“The team of volunteers that has been created in Australia has done many markets around Victoria and the goods are now also stocked in several retailers and online. 100 per cent of the profits have gone back to the women in Nepal. This has enabled the tin shed to be knocked down and allowed a space for a women’s skills training centre to be built. It has grown from seven women to now, just over 120. The initial seven women now employ others without disabilities. This has challenged the stigma in society. Their hope is to be able to benefit the lives of other women who experience the same hardships they have endured.

photo courtesy of Seven Women


“Women in Nepal have generally been subordinate to men in virtually every aspect of life. Nepal was a rigidly patriarchal society. Women’s relative status, however, varied from one ethnic group to another. The senior female member played a commanding role within the family by controlling resources, making crucial planting and harvesting decisions, and determining the expenses and budget allocations. Yet women’s lives remained centered on their traditional roles taking care of most household chores, fetching water and animal fodder, and doing farm work. Their standing in society was mostly contingent on their husbands’ and parents’ social and economic positions. They had limited access to markets, productive services, education, health care, and local government. Malnutrition and poverty hit women hardest.

“Female children usually were given less food than male children, especially when the family experienced food shortages. Women usually worked harder and longer than men. By contrast, women from high-class families had maids to take care of most household chores and other menial work and thus worked far less than men or women in lower socioeconomic groups. The economic contribution of women was substantial, but largely unnoticed because their traditional role was taken for granted. When employed, their wages normally were 25 percent less than those paid to men. In most rural areas, their employment outside the household generally was limited to planting, weeding, and harvesting. In urban areas, they were employed in domestic and traditional jobs, as well as in the government sector, mostly in low-level positions.”

The work that Seven Women is doing is helping to slowly change this situation, by giving marginalized women opportunities that they didn’t previously have. Over 450 women have now been trained and are becoming self sufficient.

photo by Kim Cartmell


If you are interested in helping, you can visit the online store and buy some of the products made by the women. Alternatively, you can organize a fundraising event and book Stephanie to speak. If like Lara, you’d like to get a little closer, you can also join Steph on a study tour.

We’ll be catching up again with Lara in 2013 to hear about the trip and her ongoing involvement. Until then, wishing you all a lovely and uplifting New Year…

Joanna Francis spends most of her time hanging out with her 23 month old son. But she also works for a children’s foundation and has recently started her own little business making baby quilts. In the past, Joanna has worked as an aid worker in several developing countries, and is passionate about the rights of women and children. You can visit her and her blog at

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Women in the World: the Stepping Stones and Multicultural Connections Programs

By Joanna Francis

Around the world, there are countless organisations working with women by using creativity as a pathway out of poverty. Today though, I thought we’d look a little closer to home. What about women who have arrived here in Australia as refugees, who have brought with them a multitude of skills and resources but face cultural barriers and a lack of access to resources? Recently I came across two wonderful groups that exist in Melbourne…. the Stepping Stones program, run by the Ecumenical Migration Centre (a branch of the Brotherhood of St Lawrence) and the Multicultural Connection Centre.

The Stepping Stones program offers mentoring, training and support to help refugee and migrant women develop new skills and increase their participation in business and the community.

One woman who participated in the program is Luz Restrepo. Luz is a Colombian woman who came to Australia 2 years ago as an asylum seeker and has faced huge challenges including a lack of English and a consequent lack of identity and self esteem. In an effort to improve her English, improve her wellbeing and help others in the same situation, she organised a group – the Multicultural Connection Centre – to create a space where migrant women could come together, share their stories, improve their English and reduce their feelings of isolation.

The group has evolved to focus on women meeting regularly to create handmade crafts which they are then selling at markets around Melbourne. This allows them to not only earn some income for themselves and their families, but to improve their self esteem, continue to build relationships and a sense of community.  I met some of these women recently… Ler Paw from Burma, Saida from Rwanda, Lakpa from Tibet and Monica from Pakistan.

Each has endured much hardship in the their lives, and many challenges adjusting to a new life in a new country. But each one was finding that the skills they  had learnt through their involvement, as well as the friendship and opportunities provided were helping to improve both their lives and those of their families.

Speaking to Luz and the women she was working with helped remind me that each of these women has come to Australia with their own skills and experiences and identity, and that the challenges faced here often diminish that sense of self worth. But that the benefits of meeting with others in similar situations and increasing their own sense of confidence and independence are huge.

Stepping Stones is looking for mentors for the women participating in their program. If you’re interested, you can learn more here.

Similarly, Luz is looking for funding for materials, as well as creative women who might be able to assist with advice or training, particularly in making their craft stalls more financially viable. If you are interested, you can contact get in touch with me (details below) and I can put you in touch with Luz.

Joanna Francis spends most of her time hanging out with her 21 month old son. But she also works for a children’s foundation and has recently started her own little business making baby quilts. In the past, Joanna has worked as an aid worker in several developing countries, and is passionate about the rights of women and children. You can visit her and her blog at

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Women in the World: Emerge Global

By Joanna Francis

In 2005, Alia Whitney-Johnson arrived in Sri Lanka as a volunteer during the aftermath of the tsunami. While there, she encountered girls and young women who were survivors of rape or incest and who were testifying in court cases, but who as a result had been cast out by their families and were living in shelters, often without access to education. In an attempt to get to know the girls, Alia sat down with them to teach them beading. One simple act of creativity allowed barriers to be broken down and enabled the girls to express themselves and from there the Beads-to-Business program was born and the organisation, Emerge Global came to be.

I’m sure that most of you who visit this website do not need to be convinced of the myriad benefits of being creative. For me, using my hands and producing something beautiful and tangible has helped lift me out of my baby bubble, off the couch and back into the world, and has done wonders for my mental health. This month, in ‘Women of the World’, I’m featuring a wonderful little organisation that truly understands the healing and transformative power of creativity and is using it to change young women’s lives. I said in last month’s post that I wanted to highlight some organizations that have thought critically about how to use creativity to enhance women’s status and life quality, while empowering them and giving them stepping stones for the future. And Emerge is one such organization.

Alia, Emerge’s founder and Executive Director, describes the program for us here at the Creative Women’s Circle:

“Most of the girls Emerge works with have not had control in any aspects of their lives – not even over their own bodies. The first stage of Emerge’s Beads-to-Business program is to allow the girls to explore their creativity and personal sense of beauty, to learn to express themselves, and to take pride in this process. They learn to make their own choices again and to be proud and comfortable with these choices”.

“In the first stage, girls use existing Emerge jewellery designs (some designed by girls who have been in the program before) but select their own beads and colours. This allows them to learn basic jewellery techniques while also learning to make their own decisions and to respect their own creative process. Once the girls learn how to make jewellery, they then design and price their own jewellery products. Woven into this creative process is a business workbook and simulated Emerge store and bank that teaches critical business skills”.

“This creative process is empowering in several distinct ways: First, it cultivates creativity, self-expression, and self-confidence as we encourage each girl to celebrate her personal sense of beauty. Second, through this creative process, girls are able to generate financial capital for which they have ownership. Third, the girls are equipped with business and financial management acumen – they participate in a simulated bead store and bank each week as they select their supplies and they work through a business workbook. In this way, they are developing the knowledge needed to leverage their creativity and support themselves outside of the shelter. Fourth, we use the process to develop the girls’ leadership skills. While they initially focus on their own creativity and expression, in stage two of our program, girls become leaders in the program, mentoring other girls, running the Emerge store and bank. They learn to teach and support others and to respect and encourage other girls’ voices. Finally, this process allows the girls to develop a marketable skill that they can use later if they choose”.

The  program is led by Sri Lankan women, and the girls involved have a say in how the program is run, as well as having the opportunity to be mentored by women in their community who provide support and guidance.

Emerge is a wonderful organization and program and I urge you to look at their website for further information about the program and about how you can support them. There’s also a wonderful video that provides a real insight into just how transformative the program has been for so many young women.

I’ll leave you with some final words from an Emerge alumni…

“An unexpected event changed my life one day. My fate was changed in a way that I never thought it would. It left me at my lowest, heart broken and lonely. At that time, when I was without any help, feeling sad, it was the beading workshop that helped ease my pain and loneliness and helped me make up my mind and console myself. The satisfaction I feel in combining beautiful colors, designing and completing a beautiful necklace or bracelet is hard to describe in words. These workshops have helped me succeed in life and face life as a successful human being to this day. I thank the people who helped me and guided me through this difficult time. Now as my career, I have dedicated myself to teach girls that have faced the same challenges as me. I do it with immense happiness. I believe I can empathize with our girls and be a friend to them. I have had many diverse experiences ever since the beginning of this program. From the savings generated from this program, girls have been able to build their own house and care for their child. I am happy to witness these events. Its good to be part of something that is so helpful to another person”.

Joanna Francis spends most of her time hanging out with her 18 month old son. But she also works for a children’s foundation and has recently started her own little business making baby quilts. In the past, Joanna has worked as an aid worker in several developing countries, and is passionate about the rights of women and children. You can visit her and her blog at

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