She began with a mission to support her mother, who has been unable to walk for the past 27 years. She never expected that her efforts would lead to the empowerment of women throughout her community...
Get to know the amazing women behind Firewheel Designs with our new video series, Face of Firewheel!
by Natalia Ledford
It’s hard to fathom how much things have changed in so little time.
As I sat down to write about the Firewheel Designs fall collection, sounds from the protest several blocks away kept pulsing into my office and now I can't seem to think about anything else, or stop reflecting on life in Guatemala over the past several months.
Only 365 days back, we were scrambling to put together a production house and form a team in a country where everyone seemed to be quietly grumbling about corruption in the government, about politicians filling their pockets by stealing from public schools and hospitals, but I never heard it get above a grumble. When people talked about revolution it was an abstract idea, maybe something Guatemala would see 10 years down the road.
Today I sit in my office on a Thursday, but it feels like a Sunday outside. Most businesses have closed for the day as Guatemala has shut down almost entirely for a nation-wide strike. Protesters have set up roadblocks on most major highways throughout the country – not to trap or hurt anyone, but to draw everyone’s attention to their demands.
I’m supposed to be playing catch up with our fall line, which we will be releasing at the end of September. I realized it had been a while since I wrote a blog post so I started out talking about this new line of scarves that we will be producing with a group of 15 women who live on Lago Atitlan. They’ll be beautiful, organic cotton scarves, and each of which will come with an inspiring story. But today it’s hard write about fabric and fall colors while I know that just a few blocks away, Quetzaltenango’s Central Park, usually a quiet place to walk your dog or grab some coffee, is full of hundreds of people waving Guatemalan flags and demanding that the president step down.
It’s a movement that has been gaining momentum since spring, and it’s not one that we at Firewheel Designs can go without acknowledging, even as a non-political startup that focuses on assisting women. We work here, so everyday life has been impacted by the movement in one way or another. But in any case we're hopeful that the outcome of all of this will create positive change for Guatemalan citizens.
In the last several months we’ve seen the vice president of Guatemala (and numerous others) step down from office in response to the massive (but peaceful!) protests, which arose after a major corruption scandal was exposed. I won’t get into the hairy details, but recently it has come to light that the President, Otto Perez Molina, was apparently the chief beneficiary of the scandal that sparked the outrage. Long story short, the head of state and his subordinates funneled hundreds of millions of dollars of tax revenue into their personal bank accounts. Obviously the public is furious. At the same time, people are hopeful and proud of this peaceful movement they've cultivated in a country that's infamous for violence. There's a unique vibe in Guatemala now that I've never felt before, which probably isn't saying much since I've only been here 2 years, but, Ricardo also maintains it's unique, and hey, he's been here 29 years.
As a fashion brand, you don’t want to talk too much about politics; you want to talk about how special your products are. Then again, we’re a fashion brand that was born out of outrage for the injustices suffered by women in Guatemala. Those same women have visited Quetzaltenango’s public hospital and received poor medical care due to lack of funding. Those same women have had to choose between sending their children to public schools where they will receive a poor education, or sending them to expensive private schools they can’t afford. Perhaps there would be more than 2 domestic violence shelters in Guatemala if its leaders didn’t insist on driving Jaguars. In the end, our products represent the stories of the women we work with, and the political crisis currently underway is part of everyone's story here.
I can see indignation in the Guatemalan population, and I can say that I understand why. They've had enough, and there seems to be no backing down. Now the president risks losing the immunity granted to him by Guatemalan law, which would expose him to an investigation and possible incarceration. Ex Vice President Roxana Baldetti has already traveled down said road, in a completely unprecedented chain of events.
A year ago, as Ricardo and I were running around setting up shop for Firewheel Designs, no one could have predicted that developments like these were just around the corner in Guatemala.
I know that today I’m supposed to be catching up with the fall line, but it might have to wait until tomorrow. Guatemala isn’t my home country, but it is home to a lot of people I care about. I don’t know what changes will come, but I hope they are positive, and instead of writing about our products today I feel I should go to the park now and observe that change alongside my boyfriend and friends who have been waiting for a peaceful call for change like this for years.
Do stay tuned for the fall line though, it’s going to be really something.
If you have a question about Firewheel Designs that we didn’t address here, please go to “Contact Us” and we will be happy to respond promptly!
Q: When did you start Firewheel Designs?
A: Just under a year ago.
Q: What percentage of each sale goes to the woman who made the product?
A: In order to be as responsible and fair with our employees as possible, we don’t pay per piece, instead we pay hourly wages that are more than double fair trade standards. Many groups in Guatemala that work with disenfranchised women pay each employee a percentage of the sale price for each product they make, and only pay after that product actually sells. While this approach is legal, we don’t go by this model because we don’t want the survivors we work with to assume the risk if the piece doesn’t sell. Firewheel Designs assumes all the risk. We also want to make sure that their income is steady, not fluctuant. For this reason we make the necessary sacrifices and make thought-out decisions about product designs in order to be able to support a fair hourly wage system. It’s the best choice for our project because it’s the best choice for our employees.
Q: What does creating jobs have to do with helping survivors of domestic violence escape abusive relationships? Why not just help them get to the nearest shelter and let them take it from there?
A: Dependable resources for survivors of domestic violence are difficult to come by in Guatemala. In a country of over 15 million people, only two shelters for survivors of domestic violence exist. Two. In a recent interview we did with the director of “La Secretaria de la Mujer,” a local agency that files reports of domestic violence, she said that while hard statistics don’t exist, her belief is that the majority of women in Guatemala experience domestic violence at some point. Despite the high prevalence of abuse, these two shelters can only support around 20 families at a time. So, for all victims apart from about 40 cases in the entire country, there is no shelter to turn to.
We create jobs for survivors because financial abuse lies at the core of every case we have seen in Guatemala. Traditionally, in Guatemala, men are expected to work and earn the household income while women are expected to stay in the house, take care of the children and handle all other domestic duties. This doesn’t apply to all families, but it is the mainstream culture. These gender norms affect the opportunities that women are given access to, beginning in childhood. A lack of access to formal education and training for marketable job skills is a serious problem that runs along gender lines.
This puts countless women in an impossible situation when they begin to experience domestic violence. Their options for earing an income independent of their husbands are extremely limited, but without an income of their own they aren’t in a position to leave him or they and their children could risk starvation.
This is why Firewheel Designs has made it its mission to help women become financially independent. When they are in charge of their own finances they are on much better footing to be in charge of their own lives.
Q: How do you get connected to the survivors of domestic violence who you hire to work at Firewheel Designs?
A: We are an independent entity, but when we hire new survivors we get referrals from “La Secreteria de la Mujer,” a local government agency where women can go to report domestic violence. They help women develop what they call “life plans,” which are essentially plans to help women leave abusive households safely and with financial stability. When women are referred to us and begin working with us, we become part of their “life plan” in terms of helping them establish financial stability.
While we collaborate with “La Secretaria de la Mujer,” we don’t work with them exclusively. The next time we are able to hire, we will also be looking into the possibility of interviewing women who exit from “Nuevos Horizontes,” a shelter for survivors of domestic violence in Xela. (One of the only two shelters in the entire country.)
Q: You’re always saying, “When you buy from Firewheel you support survivors of domestic violence in Guatemala.” It seems like a lot of social businesses and charities purport messages like this, but what does it really mean? Does buying accessories really help anyone?
A: Seriously, when it comes to Firewheel Designs, buying jewelry and other stuff for yourself and/or as gifts equates to helping real people.
Case in point, recently a woman who we have been working with for less than a year announced that she had reached a place where she was emotionally ready and financially stable enough to leave her violent partner. She saved herself and her very young son by leaving. To clarify, she got out thanks to her own courage and determination. Firewheel only played one role in her escape plan, but we are thankful that the role we did play was effective and that we can continue to help her grow as a businesswoman. If we hadn’t gotten support from customers who bought our products throughout the year, we wouldn’t have been able to give her high enough wages to allow her to become financially independent. But, since we did have enough sales revenue to support wages, she was able to make enough income to no longer depend on her abusive partner to put food on the table, and she left. The more demand we can generate for our products, the more hours we can give our production team per week, and the more survivors we can hire. The more you buy, the more impact we have, simple as that.
Q: You wanted to help survivors of domestic violence. Why did you go for social entrepreneurship instead of establishing a charity?
The founders have worked before with charities. While we believe charity certainly has its place when it comes to social problems where self-sustainable economic solutions may not be possible to establish, our research and experience has shown us that when possible, self-sustainable economic solutions are by far the best option for survivors.
Take, for example, the high prevalence of domestic violence in Guatemala. The problem on paper is that there are disturbingly high rates of violence perpetuated against women throughout the country.
But the social cycles that allow the problem to continue are a lot more complicated to unpack. Abuse and violence against women is compounded by Guatemala’s high rates of extreme poverty and the inextricably linked problem that sustained formal education for women and girls is difficult to access. This is why many women can’t “just leave” when they begin to experience domestic violence. It’s actually a safer option for many victims to endure beatings, as horrible as it is, than to risk starvation for themselves and their children if they were to leave their homes and fend for themselves with little-to-no formal education to fall back on and no marketable job skills. This includes victims who are unable to garner support from their friends or families.
So why create jobs for survivors in this situation, instead of raising money to donate to them?
On the financial side of things: Getting people to donate their hard-earned money is a lot harder and less sustainable than getting people to buy a product. Donations fluctuate -- they aren’t steady. This puts the survivor at risk. Donations alone couldn’t guarantee a steady source of income for her. Then, if we would leave her high and dry after an unsuccessful fundraising season, she’d be at risk of returning to an abusive spouse out of financial desperation.
On the psychological side of things: Many survivors of domestic violence have lived for years with a person who also abuses them emotionally, degrading them, diminishing their self-esteem. It’s a problem that many survivors need support to overcome. You know that amazing feeling you get after you master a new skill that you can utilize to make a living? That’s a universal feeling. It’s not a cure-all, but it helps a great deal. We find that by training women to master new skills that they can turn into income, their self-esteem improves greatly. They aren’t being handed their wages, they are earning their wages in a healthy, supportive environment.
Q: Do you support male survivors of domestic violence?
A: We fully recognize that men can also be victims of violence and abuse, and we are willing to supporting men as well as women. At this point, no men have sought our support, so for now we are focusing on female survivors and the unique challenges they face when it comes to escaping violent relationships and staying safe thereafter.
Q: Some products in your store say they are original designs by Firewheel, while others are part of the “Artisan Collection.” What’s the difference?
A: The original designs are what we personally design and produce in our workshop.
The Artisan Collection is a collection of crafts from around Guatemala that we acquire by partnering with independent artists who struggle with poverty and are either run by women or employ women. By buying their products in bulk at their set prices, we support their small businesses and their families. When we sell their products, we use any profits to invest in the survivors we work with at Firewheel Designs. It’s a win-win for everybody.
It was like any other afternoon. We were walking down the street near the historical center of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. I had been living in Quetzaltenango (or Xela) for about a year, and my boyfriend Ricardo was born and raised there. We were talking about our long-standing idea of starting up a project called Firewheel, a social enterprise that would help women in Guatemala get on their feet after leaving abusive relationships. We were rounding the corner, when suddenly we saw someone lying unconscious, face down on the other side of the street. We became especially worried when we realized it was a woman.
Suddenly she woke up and said she needed help. As Ricardo called an ambulance, she explained that she had been attacked by a group of men the night before. They had beaten her badly in a moving car, then had thrown her out on the street and sped off. She had been lying alone on the sidewalk all morning. She had a massive bump on her head. Her hair was matted with blood.
The minutes dragged on and the ambulance didn't come. We called again and explained the emergency again. They still didn't come. We contemplated getting a taxi, but her head injury made it too risky to move her.
While we waited she started talking about her past, as if she needed to explain why she was on the street. She said she had been married before. She said her husband was violent, and the beatings had gotten to a point where she was sure she would die if she didn't escape. She had no formal education or job skills, and her family refused to help her. She fled her home one night with nowhere to go. She became homeless, and spiraled downward into alcoholism. She tried to kill herself at one point. I asked if she had tried getting help from any organizations that assist women and her reply was that no one really had any room for her.
"The woman, who I’ll call Isabel, made the point clear: In Guatemala, gender-based violence is not considered a serious problem, not enough to create a reliable system of resources for women in danger. Women need more advocates. The hour it took for the ambulance to arrive illustrated her point all the more."
An hour after we called, the ambulance finally came and took her to the hospital. We were left with a bitter taste in our mouths. In a country where gender-based violence is rampant, (about 50% of Guatemalan women experience gender-based violence in their lifetime) there are only 2 shelters for survivors of domestic violence and gender-based violence in the entire country. Ricky and I had been working with women and children in one of those shelters for several months prior to that day. There, we learned that situations like this are all too common. The woman, who I’ll call Isabel, made the point clear: In Guatemala, gender-based violence and domestic violence is not considered a serious problem, not enough to create a truly reliable system of resources for women in danger. Women need more advocates. The hour it took for the ambulance to arrive illustrated this point all the more.
After that afternoon, we decided to make Firewheel Designs a reality. The idea was that we needed to create a business that offered jobs for survivors of domestic violence who couldn't find work anywhere else. It had to be mother-friendly, offering services like free childcare. We had seen several cases where women had managed to escape abusive homes but were forced to return out of financial desperation. When they couldn't support themselves on their own, it would come down to a decision between their own security and food for their children. Firewheel, therefore, needed to become a business that prevented this situation for as many women as possible, while also being self-sustaining.
Ricardo had spent the last 8 years of his life managing large businesses, a gym and later a restaurant, and he wanted to put his skill set to use helping people. He also knew from an economic standpoint that the most effective way to build a developing economy from the ground up is to empower women and girls.
I had spent much of my 4 years in college studying social enterprise in developing nations. I graduated with a degree in international studies. Social enterprises are now being recognized as one of the most effective ways to lift people, particularly women, out of extreme poverty.
We decided to make Firewheel a design house for handmade jewelry and accessories because the women would need to produce a product that any hardworking person could learn how to create, regardless of whether she had a master's degree or had never had the opportunity to go to school at all. It also had to be a product that we could sell at fair prices that would yield a high enough profit margin for them to support themselves independent of any abusive ex-spouses. We also wanted it to be a product that would be therapeutic to produce, a product with meaning. In a short 7 months we have built this small business from the ground up with support from our amazing team and non-profit partners.
Until we see Isabel again, we are dedicating several designs to her and all other women throughout the world who share a similar story. We don’t consider gender-based violence a woman’s problem, we consider it a human problem. That's why our team is made up of driven women and men who are committed to doing our part to make the world a better, safer place for survivors. Join us!
Director and Co-Founder of Firewheel Designs
We’ve been getting more and more support for Firewheel Designs the closer we get to the holidays, and we couldn’t be more appreciative of it! We'd like to take this opportunity to explain in detail to our new supporters what we do and why our cause is so important.
Life in Guatemala for women suffering from abuse, like anywhere, is a life of isolation and desperation. One thing that makes cases in Guatemala extreme, is that there are so few resources available to women who need assistance, even in life-threatening situations.
One case-in-point comes from a woman we met about a year ago. We’ll call her Luisa. Her neck and arms were covered in scars, which she explained were put there by her ex-husband. He stabbed her 14 times, until her oldest son wrestled the knife away and took her to the hospital. She barely survived. At the hospital they took photos and reported him to the police, but no arrest took place right away. He began to stalk her after that point, and was only arrested after another attempt on her life. She said she feared he'd be released from prison any day. In Guatemala, if you have money, it’s not hard to buy your freedom. Just as she feared, he was walking free within 3 months of his arrest.
Adding to her physical insecurity, was her financial insecurity. She was taken out of school after just one year and had no job skills, no means to support her children. To say the least, the job market isn’t kind to women in her situation. She feared she would have to return to his family for support.
We established Firewheel Designs to create jobs for women in her situation so that they NEVER have to consider returning to a violent home out of financial desperation. We train them to hand make fine jewelry and accessories. You can see in our product photos that some designs are rather complicated, while others are simpler. This reflects various stages in the training process. The one thing that all of our products have in common is that they are made from fine, high quality materials and that by purchasing them you are supporting women like Luisa.
We hope that you consider us as an ethical source for beautiful, truly meaningful gifts this holiday season!
- The Firewheel Team
"Out of the blue, my beautiful son hands me a box and I recognize the logo immediately. I open it and he says, 'It came with a note that said the necklace is an abstract representation of a seedling growing. To the woman who made it, the design is about starting her life over.' So, while I sit here in awe, I am putting on a gift that has touched the hands, imagination and intention, of people I admire. The story is more relevant to my life than you can know.