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“Poverty is the greatest cause of armed conflict, but armed conflict is the greatest cause of poverty. And women bear the brunt of both…”

Fiona McAlpine.

By Fiona McAlpine

My love affair with India started from an early age. As a 7 year old travelling with my parents, I discovered a world full of contradictions – a world that is both filthy and pure, beautiful and ghastly, hilarious and tragic. One day was filled with ancient sparkling temples, another curled up vomiting in bed, and another filled with spontaneous elephant-accompanied street dancing.

In my young life, I have been lucky enough to live and travel all over the world. I have taught English in the Himalayas and driven a motorbike around South East Asia. I have worked as a journalist halfway up a volcano in West Africa and for the United Nations in the heart of Manhattan. But I kept returning to India, the place where I got my first taste of the enormously-wide world.

I have also been involved in the women’s peace movement, particularly with the International Young WILPF Network – the youth branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, one of the oldest women’s organisations in the world. We work in Australia and internationally, trying to convince governments that some young women are more concerned with Kalashnikovs than Kardashians. WILPF is a disarmament force to be reckoned with, and has given us the confidence to cut our teeth on the international stage.

It was as an intern at the UN that I first met Bina. She spoke at the Commission on the Status of Women about her home, Manipur. Manipur lies on the Indo-Burma border, and has been devastated by decades of armed violence, with an illicit arms and drugs trade and thousands of unnecessary deaths. She spoke of the women in her network, all of whom have had a loved one die in the conflict. She spoke with candour and passion, about the outrage and protests held by women in the Northeast, a hotbed of women’s resistance. The room was filled with dignitaries and diplomats, most of whom had never heard of Manipur and most of whom were awkwardly trying to hide their sniffling. Needless to say my feminist spidey senses were tingling, and in my own mind I was already on the next plane to Delhi.

So two years later I found myself living in India, with some of my Young WILPF sisters. We had been working on designing humanitarian projects in conflict zones, mostly in attempts to improve access to justice and employment opportunities for women on the ground. With Bina’s guidance, I was lucky enough to visit Manipur a few times, and meet with the women about whom I had heard so much.

I saw the place where women had staged a successful unarmed resistance in 1939 against the British. I saw the army gates where, after the infamous Manorama rape and murder case in 2004,  women stripped naked and stood behind a red banner emblazoned with ‘INDIAN ARMY RAPE US’. I met cross-legged with women whose testimonies I had read, cried over, and had nightmares about. And these women welcomed me with open arms, smiling faces, and delicious Northeastern food. (If you ever get the chance, eat a Naga chilli. It will melt your face off).

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“These women work for themselves, not us.”

In this context, there is a chicken and egg scenario playing out, whereby poverty is the greatest cause of conflict, and the conflict is the greatest cause of poverty. You simply cannot break one cycle without breaking the other. And this is how The Fabric Social was born.

Women in these Northeast states produce some of the most gorgeous fabrics we had ever seen, but they can’t sell them for more than a few hundred rupees. We thought, if we could connect those women with western markets (where the money is) they could seriously increase their return, funnelling money directly into the community groups and cooperatives where the work is done.

We’ve found a wonderful Dutch designer who will combine traditional fabrics with simple western cuts and styles.

By using a smartphone app these women can leapfrog the bullshit that gets in the way, ie. distributors and middlemen.

We are creating an environment in which these powerful and gutsy women remain savvy business owners who maintain ownership over the process.

They work for themselves, not for us.

As I loped exhaustedly off the plane, aged 7, I could never have imagined starting this project 20 years later. But I like to think that kid would be excited about The Fabric Social, not only about the clothes, but about the amazing stories behind them.

Fi is a co-founder of The Fabric Social, a tech start-up and ethical fashion label that aims to tackle gender inequality in the context of armed conflict.

The idea is simple: By tapping into existing on-the-ground projects run for and by women and adding some simple tech tools, The Fabric Social boosts the profitability of these projects – and therefore empowers women in conflict-affected areas.

It will be running its pilot project in Northeast India, which is home to more than 100 armed groups — and a form of martial law that gives them virtual impunity for human regular rights violations.

Support The Fabric Social at its Pozible page here or by voting for it in the PayPal #Peoplerule competition here.

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