Sewing for confidence and independence: a social enterprise for Roma women and girls

Grantee: Winds of Change, Odesa, Ukraine
Project: creation of a needlework social enterprise for Roma women and girls. 

Poverty and multiple forms of discrimination have long kept Roma women in the shadows. What is expected of Roma girls is to stay silent, get married as early as possible, have children and spend their life on housework and child-rearing, sometimes earning a small amount of money in low-skilled, seasonal work, begging or fortune-telling. But not all of them are content to accept this humble situation. 

The Odesa charitable organisation Winds of Change, with financial support from the BEARR Trust, has helped Roma women to study, learn new ways and specialisms, and achieve their potential. The project provided courses for Roma women in cutting cloth and sewing, and with course participants we created a brand of bed linen called ‘Petalentsa’. 

Everything began in 2019, when the foundation opened a community centre ‘Petalentsa’, using the Roma word for ‘horseshoe’. The centre became a place of safety and support for Roma girls to meet in, and expanded its scope to broaden the rights and opportunities of the girls and to raise their awareness of the value of education, access to medical care and the need to improve the position of Roma women in the family and in society.  

The leader of the project, Natalya Kukhtin, said “The more we worked with them the more we understood the discrimination they face in finding work, the resulting poverty they experience, and the difficulties they have in providing care for their families as a result of having no education or skills. Roma mothers told us that they did not want to beg or steal, but were paid three times less than non-Roma people for work in agriculture.” 

Both Roma women and girls were taught sewing skills and how to sell their products.

The centre’s model of skills training and job-searching was used to help Roma mothers at the Petalentsa centre. Twenty
Roma women and girls learnt sewing skills – five were aged 16-19 years, eight were 20-35, and seven over 35. Once they knew how to sew and began selling their products, their friends started coming to the workshop to learn as well. But we did not have space for them all and disputes broke out, so we established criteria for accepting them on the course: we would take women who were illiterate and innumerate and could therefore not be helped by job centres, and girls up to 18-years-old with the potential to set up their own business in the future. 

Most of our participants were women who had the potential to overcome centuries of stigma but who had never had a job – they only knew how to look after a home and children. One lady told her children proudly every day she came to the centre that she was “going to work”. She said that the first time she uttered those words was the first time she experienced self-esteem. It was the beginning of her independence. Roma women are quite shy, so the Petalentsa Centre invited along a successful Roma woman who owned a sewing business, Victoria Kobzar. She opened their eyes to the possibility that even a Roma woman can be successful if they want to and make the effort.  

But not everyone saw things that way. One of our beneficiaries posted details of high-quality items sewn by her and for sale on Instagram, hoping for orders, but found some very negative comments posted there from among her own contacts. And some shops declined to sell the products when they found out who had made them. So, the Petalentsa social enterprise was set up, based on the Petalentsa community centre, to sell the household linens the women made. 

Over the course of the project, a psychologist helped the women to adapt and become used to financial independence. Of the first course members, 12 have continued working in the social enterprise, two found their own work placements, and one set up her own training course for other women, with every one of six trainers training three new women.  The courses in cutting and sewing are continuing, and in the social enterprise there are girls who have just finished their course. They work in two shifts, so that they can work when it suits them. At present there are 12 on the course, and not all are from the Roma community. Some are from the ‘Peace’ CSO, veterans of the conflict in the East, and widows of soldiers who were killed. While the women are at work their children are cared for in a creche next to the sewing room. In all, 41 children have been cared for there, looked after by volunteer carers. Some older children wanted to help their mothers sewing after school and are also now able to produce everything from toys to bed linen.  

The sewing enterprise is not yet a hugely profitable business, but its products are selling well via social networks and have been appreciated for their quality by a Norwegian CSO ‘Familiehjelpen Ukraina’, which was looking for hypoallergenic bedlinen for women and children in their own crisis centre. A set of our high-quality bedlinen costs only 550 UAH (£15). The workshop has the capacity to produce 50 sets per day but has not reached that level yet. We are also providing training in social media marketing, conventional marketing, and business development. Our participants also sell to their friends. 

Women have emerged during the training who are natural leaders, motivated and capable of driving the project further. Some are studying business planning and bringing their own business plans to fruition. All their ideas are linked to sewing and developing new lines of products. For example, one of the girls with an interest in ecology has developed a plan for sewing eco-bags in which to sell the bedlinen made in the enterprise, instead of using plastic wrapping, which legislation is going to ban soon. These bags are designed so that they can be used as shopping bags afterwards. We also plan to open a small textiles shop of our own. This would enable the enterprise to expand and employ more women in difficult situations. 

Winds of Change have designed a lovely calendar for 2022, which you can download and print out here:





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