'They had to come together': Exhibit shows how female co-operatives are changing the world

Artisan co-operatives run by women are the focus of a new exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. The museum explores how co-operatives are helping women put food on the table and send their children to school.

'These co-operatives have really transformed communities,' says exhibit curator

A new exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights uses virtual technology to transport visitors to life inside a Guatemalan weaving co-operative. (courtesy of CMHR)

Female artisans around the world are finding ways to preserve their culture and earn an income.

Successful co-operatives run by women are the focus of a new exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.

"Empowering Women: Artisan Cooperatives that Transform Communities" opens on Saturday and runs until January 8, 2017.

It profiles 11 different artisan co-operatives around the world, including those in India, Rwanda, Morocco and Peru.

Virtual reality transports visitors: curator

Curator of the exhibit, Armando Perla, said the exhibit shows how co-operatives have allowed women to maintain traditional cultural practices while selling their products — such as fabrics, embroidery and jewellery— to buyers around the world. The income helps put food on the table, improve housing and send children to school, said Perla.

"These co-operatives have really transformed communities," he said.

The CMHR tries to make the co-operatives and the women who run them come alive for visitors. People are invited to touch and interact with objects, he said.

A section of the exhibit that focuses a co-operative in Guatemala and uses virtual reality technology to immerse visitors in the life of Indigenous weavers.

"You feel like you are in Guatemala," Perla said.

Co-operatives are having a profound effect on Guatemalan communities, he said. The Central American country endured a civil war and genocide from 1960 to 1996 and co-operatives have given Indigenous women new hope and a sense of community.

"They did suffer a lot. A lot of these women they were left widowed or orphans. They didn't really have a way to support themselves," he said.
A number of hand-made objects from around the world like this necklace will be on display until Jan. 9, 2017 as part of "Empowering Women: Artisan Cooperatives that Transform Communities." (courtesy of CMHR)

"So they had to come together. They started getting organized and creating these co-ops where they could actually start selling their weavings."

Perla said he's careful not to over-romanticize co-operatives as a single answer for poverty in the developing world. They still rely on foreign demand for products and the women must continually look for new markets, he said.

Nevertheless, the creation of these co-operatives have had positive economic effects. In Guatemala, they may even be a way to keep Mayan culture alive for future generations.

The co-operative featured at the CMHR exhibit still use traditional dyes from vegetables to create vibrant threads that are then woven into blankets and clothing.

"They are trying to preserve their culture that was almost lost through the genocide in Guatemala," he said.

On Saturday and Sunday visitors to the museum can meet two weavers from Guatemala and see a demonstration of their fabric-making techniques.

Some of the wares will also be sold at the CMHR Boutique in cooperation with fair-trade retailer Ten Thousand Villages.
Weavers from Guatemala will be at the Museum for Human Rights this weekend demonstrating traditional Mayan techniques. (Fernand Detillieux/CBC)