Tackling exploitation in Colombia’s indigenous handbag market

Riohacha, Colombia, May 25 (EFE).- Wayuu handbags are one of Colombia’s most popular and distinctive handicrafts, but have also become the symbol of a perpetual cycle of poverty and hunger in the northern region of La Guajira.

The colorful handbags are a source of income for indigenous Wayuu women in the desert region, who have been hand weaving the bags for generations.

But with middlemen claiming ownership of the bags that have become popular around the world, indigenous women are being underpaid and pushed into poverty.

“People come from Medellín or Bogotá, they stay two or three days and take 1,000 to 2,000 backpacks,” Sandra Guillot, coordinator of Banco de Hilos, an initiative that seeks to ensure women receive the compensation they deserve, tells Efe.

Intermediary dealers are paying the Wayuu community 25,000 to 30,000 pesos (between $6.5 and $7.5) per bag, which is the cost of the thread alone, Guillot says, leaving the women with zero profit.

They then sell them for 80,000 pesos ($20) to 300,000 pesos ($75) depending on the city, she adds.

Weaving in the Wayuu culture is a tradition passed on from mother to daughter that has been for generations a means of survival for the indigenous community.

“When a woman fully develops — referring to when she has her first menstruation — they lock her up, give her a thread and needle and teach her how to weave,” a member of the Wayuu community, Yelmis Patricia Uriana, tells Efe.

The girl’s isolation can last from 15 days to two months although it could last for years a long time ago.

“Before, weaving backpacks was only and exclusively women’s work,” Guillot says, adding that men weaving was a shameful act.

But in recent years, due to the economic struggle the community is facing, men are being forced to help with the handicraft.

The Banco de Hilos association is however, working to help the Wayuu community stand on its own feet again and selling the bags for up to 100,000 pesos ($25) on their website.

While the initiative is helping women save a little bit of money, it is not enough to support their families and the community whose economy depends on handicrafts and fishing.

Despite the struggle, Wayuu women continue to keep up the ancestral tradition in the hope that someday their work will be valued fairly. EFE


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