SO JUST SHOP – Jennifer Georgeson

When I met Jennifer, the founder of SO JUST SHOP she pulled at every string in my heart just hearing about the incredible work she is doing in the world.  SO JUST SHOP works with women by helping them design jewellery, scarves, ceramics and accessories, that not only keep the traditional techniques alive but also teaches the women a trade, giving them independence and a wage so they feed their children instilling a feeling of empowerment they would never have felt before.

Please read Jennifer’s inspiring and motivating story……

What did you do before you started SO JUST SHOP?

My background is in International Development.  I’ve worked and lived in Zambia, Tanzania, India and Pakistan, mainly working on maternal and health projects, so this is really where it all came about.

In these countries women get targeted a lot in terms of the decisions they have to make, such as if their children are vaccinated, what foods they should feed their children, if they were going to school, when are they going to school, and the reason it happens a lot in developing countries is because they are the ones that go to the doctors or the hospitals when they are pregnant.  This puts all the pressure on women to be responsible for educating and feeding their children when, often they have no support at home to do so.   In a lot of the places we worked, men are the main bread winners. Women either do things like subsistence farming where they are not actually earning any money, they are just growing the food they eat, they’re at home, or they do bits of work here and there where it’s culturally appropriate. 

Can you share a project you were working on?

I was working on a project in Mumbai, in the slums. We’d been running it for about 2 years and were looking at prevention of early childhood malnutrition.  If you don’t capture a child before they hit the age of 2 and treat the chronic malnutrition, (not the acute one, that’s slightly different), it can leave the child physically and mentally stunted. We were working with communities where there were large levels of chronic malnutrition, in fact around 70 % of the girl children had it.   We’d talk to the mothers about the things that lead to malnutrition, it’s not just food but things like making sure you have a vaccine so you don’t get sick, safe water and sanitation, so we were trying to find alternate low cost solutions to things. We found that the women’s education greatly improved and they knew what they were supposed to do if their child had chronic malnutrition and how to spot it, but the difference in the children was negligible. 

We had to go back and re-asked them everything, for example, if they were feeding their child 5 meals a day, and the answer would be always be, when they were at home. So let’s just unpack what ‘this when we’re at home’ means.  A lot of these women worked in illegal or semi-illegal work which meant they couldn’t take their children with them as they were at risk of being arrested, or encouraging violence towards them, so they often left the child at home with the next oldest child, so you could end up with a 4-year-old looking after a 2-year-old.  We started up a creche where we employed some of the women in the group to make the food to sell to the creche.  It was a nice positive story. 

This made me realise that actually this is not really sustainable.  The Indian government couldn’t afford to help when it’s 60% of all children suffering from chronic malnutrition. So the project we were working on got taken up the Bombay Municipal Council and the Welcome Trust, so it finished off really well. 

But it got me thinking, and with a lot of research, I realised that 90 % of the money a woman earned stayed within the community verses only 30% of the men’s wages.  Not to sound sexist at all but you can see that if you put money into the hands of women you can have a dramatic impact, not just on the men and children but on the wider community, because the money will stay in the community.  There’s also a knock-on effect when this happens which is how empowered the women feels as they have voices within the community and also within the household.

I’m sure you have many but are there any heartfelt stories you’d like to share?

In one group we were working with in India, it took one of the ladies about 2 hours to get to work.  She couldn’t read and didn’t want to admit she couldn’t read, so she often used to walk to work because she couldn’t read the numbers on the bus.   This group we worked with made jewellery and also gave the women literacy lessons. This particular lady was really talented in jewellery-making and eager to attend the literacy classes, and she ended up in a senior position in the company because she was very quickly able to read and write in Hindi and English.  Now being able to read and write, when she went back home to her village, she started to question where and what the council and councillors were spending the community money on.  The council had a whole pot of money, but they didn’t want to spend it on toilets or a water supply because as men they could safely go out and use the fields for toilets, so they didn’t need to collect any water.  This lady got all the women in the community together to demand that they use the money to invest in safe toilets and safe water supplies so they didn’t have to walk down to the river and be exposed. And, she ended up getting both the toilets and the water supply.  It wasn’t just her life and her immediate children, it was the whole community that this had that impact on.

There was another lady we worked with in Pakistan who was just amazing. She was married at the very young age of 13 or 14 and went to live in the husband’s home.  He beat her and her mother-in-law beat her.  It was a very restrictive house and community, and she would only go out once a day to get the water from a well.  One day one of the other women in the community spotted her and started a conversation to ask if she wanted to earn a little bit of money.  She taught her how to make the jewellery with the little mirrors which she then could make at home.  This meant she could bring some money into the home which would give her a little bit more security.  Anyway, it turns out that she was extremely talented at it.  She was never going to be able to leave the family home as she had children and they would be taken away from her if she did, and the cultural issues with being divorced, meant it was never going to happen.  But, because she started to make a lot of money, in fact more than her husband, when he tried to beat her one day she said, ‘If you beat me I will stop earning money and we will be poor again’.  He stopped beating her. 

But it gets better.  A third party would come to the village to collect up all the mirror work from the women to sell in the market.  This lady decided to cut out this middleman and instead she employed her husband (the one who had beaten her) to take over and do this job instead. So he ended up working for her!  Such an amazing story, and this is why we do what we do. She was employing more women from the village as well and so it’s not just the impact on her but again the whole community.   It’s also more than that because her 2 boys saw she had a place in the house and she had to be respected.

When did you launch SO JUST SHOP?

Although I talked about starting it a lot, I actually launched SO JUST SHOP’s website in November 2015.  We didn’t have much in the way of funding, but in the last couple of years it’s really started to pick up.  I think because we also use a lot of sustainable materials, for example a lot of the material we make in Kenya is from recycled brass and aluminium and we do a lot with up cycled tyres.  Today there’s a lot more interest whereas before we’d do a lot of events and shows and have to sit and explain what we did, whereas now we just say, Women’s Empowerment and people immediately get it.   Sustainable Fabrics – Got It!  There’s just a sudden understanding that this has a place and it’s important in the world. 

What’s different about the products you sell?

Our products are trying to preserve that traditional culture and heritage because those skills are gradually dying out.  We’ve kept the old traditions with modern designs.  When you know where something is made it gives a lot more value to it and you almost feel part of it. When people ask ‘where did you get that from?’ you can think ahh this was made by Daksha, and then you can tell them the story behind it which makes it really special. To find out more about Jennifer, the incredible work she is doing, with  SO JUST SHOP’s click here.