Art Is A Powerful Way To Transform Women's Lives

05/16/2016 10:05 EDT | Updated 05/17/2017 05:12 EDT
Birute Vijeikiene via Getty Images
Hands closeup, working on pottery wheel with ceramics

Julie was a drug addict living on the streets of Toronto. Then a pottery wheel changed her life.

Seven years ago, Julie (her name has been changed) joined Inspirations Studio. The pottery social enterprise is run by the Toronto non-profit, Sistering, which helps low-income women who have experienced poverty, homelessness and mental health issues. Julie learned to make kitchen crockery items, which she then sold. The boost of confidence was essential in helping her kick her drug habit. And with a small income, she no longer lives on the street.

The melding of art and enterprise is an incredibly powerful tool in helping marginalized women rebuild their lives. Women gain purpose, independence, and the ability to manage challenges like mental illness.

It's an approach we're intimately familiar with. For over a decade, we've used artistic enterprises, like making jewellery, in communities where we carry out our international development work to socially and economically empower vulnerable women. And we've heard so many stories of success, like that of Yolanda Chimbo, a struggling single mother in rural Ecuador.

After separating from her husband, who was the family breadwinner, Chimbo and her children had to live off the charity of her sister. Then she joined one of our income projects, learning to hand-weave jungle plant fibres into gorgeous items like bracelets, which are sold in local markets. With the income, Chimbo pays her kids' school and boarding fees in the nearby town of Tena, and contributes to her sister's household.

Solutions for women who live overseas are just as effective for Canadian individuals like Julie.

In addition to the pottery enterprise, Sistering also runs Spun Studio where women produce sewn and knitted goods like runners, rugs and children's sweaters that they sell at sidewalk display tables in Toronto and at farmers markets. Neighbourhood stores have also started to order the women's handmade items. The profits give women much-needed money, and help the organization purchase equipment for its programs so it can help more women.

Many of the women Sistering works with have mental illnesses, and being creative is a powerful tool in helping them cope.

Many of the women who have taken part in Sistering's programs become independent entrepreneurs. The organization supports them with training in skills like networking and making business plans. Julie now has her own home-based enterprise making one-of-a-kind mugs and teapots.

It may seem like gender stereotyping to teach women artistic trades. But the skills are easy and fast to learn, result in a sellable product, and also bring psychological benefits. Decades of studies on art therapy show that creative endeavours can boost mental health.

"For someone with a mental illness like depression, the fact that you can create something, and look at it, has a lot of power," says Merav Gilboa, an art therapist with Toronto's Baycrest Health Sciences Centre.

Many of the women Sistering works with have mental illnesses, and being creative is a powerful tool in helping them cope. "Our participants get into what they're doing. All the other problems in their lives disappear for those few minutes," says Patricia O'Connell, executive director at the organization.

There are programs like Sistering across Canada, including Vancouver's 3H Craftworks, an organization supporting individuals who are homebound by physical disabilities or mental illness. They learn to make items such as stuffed toys and Christmas ornaments, which 3H sells through its online store to generate a small income for participants.

It's hard to imagine that a beaded bracelet or simple piece of pottery could make such a difference. But in both Canada and developing countries these trinkets allow women to create a better future for themselves.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day. Visit for more information.

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