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Empower survivors of gender-based violence in Mali through embroidery

Connect survivors in Mali with quilters in the US and help both groups to work together and build an embroidery microbusiness.

Photo of Iain Guest
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What problem does the idea help to solve and how does your solution work? (2,000 characters maximum)

Our idea addresses the massive threat from sexual and gender-based violence (GBV) to women caused by conflict and displacement in the African country of Mali. The crisis began in 2012, when rebels and jihadists rose against the central government and imposed a rule of terror throughout the north of Mali. Thousands of women were raped, beaten, forced into marriage, and expelled from their homes. It was a textbook example of how sexual violence is used as a weapon of war and terror. The French army intervened in 2013, and the UN has deployed a large peace-keeping mission (MINUSMA) but this has not stopped the violence, which has spread to central Mali. According to the UN, 2,965 women sought treatment for GBV in 2018 and hundreds of women continue to flee period outbreaks of violence in the north. Most move to a nearby town like Gao, but many others flee south to the capital Bamako, where they live in poverty and isolation. These women will be the main beneficiaries from our bridge. Working with our Malian partner Sini Sanuman, we will provide embroidery training for GBV survivors in Mali. Their designed squares will then be assembled into art quilts by quilters in the US and sold. We are currently testing out this innovative approach through a pilot project, Sister Artists. Early results suggest that it will prove empowering for women at both sides of the bridge and provide a model for addressing GBV in other conflict-affected countries.

Geography of focus (500 characters)

Our bridge will connect GBV survivors in two Malian towns – Gao in the north and Bamako in the south – with quilters throughout the US. Gao and Bamako are the main centers of displacement from the conflict so the need is great. In addition, Sini Sanuman operates centers for survivors in the two towns and works with scores of local women’s groups. There are no geographic limitations in the US, where 39 quilters from 14 states currently participate in our pilot project.

Building Bridges: What bridge does your idea build between people on the move and neighbors towards a shared future of stability and promise? (500 characters)

Our bridge will be known as Sister Artists and will use embroidery to connect survivors of GBV in Mali with quilters in the US – two communities that would not otherwise interact. Our hope is that as this link deepens it will produce tangible benefits on both sides. In Mali, survivors will express themselves, learn a skill and earn money. In the US, our quilters will find an outlet for their talent and compassion, and engage directly in one of the greatest challenges facing women in Africa.

What human need is your idea solving for? (1,000 characters)

During 5 years of working with survivors in Mali, we have seen first-hand the terrible impact of GBV on women and girls. GBV can leave many wounds and as a result Sini Sanuman offers “holistic” services which combine emergency support with economic empowerment. But the most important service may be the sense of community and companionship that comes from learning skills like embroidery in the company of other women. This builds confidence and prepares survivors for a return to society and the rigors of normal life. In the US, working with quilters has shown us that they too can be empowered by working on embroidery from countries like Mali and learning about the challenges that face their sisters in the Global South. This emerges clearly in our videos on the making of advocacy quilts in Maryland, Virginia, and New Jersey. By scaling up Sister Artists through the BridgeBuilder Challenge, we hope to offer the same opportunities to more women in Africa and the US.

What will be different within the community of focus as a result of implementing your idea? (1,000 characters)

Sister Artists will produce measurable benefits on both sides of the bridge. In Mali, Sini Sanuman will work through local women’s groups in Gao and Bamako to organize embroidery trainings for at least 100 displaced survivors, who will produce embroidered blocks about the life they left behind. The blocks will then be sent to American quilters to be turned into art quilts or wall hangings for sale. The proceeds will return to Mali and be invested in a cooperative for survivors (known as Sini Brodage) run entirely by women. Our organization, The Advocacy Project (AP), will coordinate from Washington. Two experienced AP partners, profiled below, will manage activities at both ends. As this model catches on we will seek out partners with a larger footprint, such as UN agencies and even fashion companies. We will not end the violence in Mali, but we can commit to empowering vulnerable women and strengthening women’s civil society, which must be a key player in any long-term peace.

What is the inspiration behind your idea? (1,000 characters)

AP began using embroidery to tell stories in 2007, when we helped women in Bosnia to produce a quilt commemorating victims of a massacre. They made 15 quilts and used them to demand justice. Since then we have made quilts with marginalized women from 21 countries. Indeed, embroidery is now our most popular service because it provides women with a voice, skills and the chance to work with other women. We now find that once survivors have told their story they want to use their sewing skills to make money: in 2017 our beneficiaries in Mali produced their own colorful quilt from scratch. Unfortunately, the market for high-end embroidery does not exist in Mali, which is why we need to build an international bridge to the north. In this we will be helped by friendships built up with over 70 skilled American quilters and leading philanthropists such as Diane Von Furstenberg and Pamela Omidyar, who support our quilting work. This network could prove a priceless asset for women in Mali.

Describe the dynamics of the community in which the idea is to be implemented. (1,000 characters)

Our cross-cultural bridge will link 3 communities – two in Mali and one in the US – each with its own different dynamics. First, there are the survivors of GBV in Mali, who have been forced to leave their homes. They live on the outskirts of towns where aid agencies rarely visit but they are also remarkably resilient. The second community is comprised of women’s groups in poor neighborhoods of Mali. These groups offer their members friendship. They also welcome GBV survivors from the conflict, which makes them indispensable to any solution. The third community consists of quilters in the US who work in guilds and also take pleasure from each other’s company. (These quilters sometimes describe their meetings as “bitch and stitch.”) Sister Artists will help them to develop embroidery projects with women’s groups in Mali that work with survivors – the sort of linkage that is never attempted by conventional aid donors but would play to the strengths of all three communities.

How does your idea leverage and empower community strengths and assets to help create an environment for success? (1,000 characters)

Our model is designed to build on the strengths of the three communities of women, described above. There is much to work with. Once GBV survivors regain their confidence they show great resourcefulness in finding ways to earn money through recycling, washing clothes, or cooking food. They are also anxious to learn a new skill, like embroidery. The second community, Malian women’s groups, are the first point of call for survivors arriving from the conflict areas and provide the glue that holds civil society together in underserved urban areas. Sister Artists will allow us to offer embroidery training through these groups instead of at closed centers – and this new approach will reach more survivors, strengthen the organizational capacity of the groups and ensure sustainability. Finally, we will draw on the skills, compassion and sheer productivity of our quilting friends in the US. We look forward to connecting these three remarkable communities through Sister Artists.

What other partners or stakeholders will work alongside you in implementing the idea, if any? (1,000 characters)

Sister Artists is a collaborative effort between The Advocacy Project (AP) and two experienced current partners. In Mali, Sini Sanuman (“Healthy Tomorrow") was launched by Siaka Traore in 2002 to combat genital cutting (excision). After conflict broke out in 2012 AP helped Sini Sanuman to broaden its work, and between 2014 and 2017 we jointly managed four centers for GBV survivors, with funding from Germany. Embroidery was added to training at AP’s suggestion, and has proved extremely popular. In the US, Sister Artists will be managed by Quilt for Change, a 501c3 founded in 2000 by Allison Wilbur. Allison has commissioned quilts from her network members on global threats to women, ranging from malaria to conflict. In 2012 Quilt for Change and AP joined forces to organize an exhibition of advocacy quilts at the UN which attracted over 80,000 visitors. Thirty-nine Quilt for Change members are currently working on Malian embroidery under the Sister Artists pilot project.

What part of the displacement journey is your solution addressing

  • Arriving and settling at a destination community

Tell us how you'd describe the type of innovation you are proposing

  • Platform: Creating a community or market that facilitates interaction between users and resources

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Pilot: We have started to implement the idea as a whole with a first set of real users. The feasibility of an innovation is tested in a small-scale and real world application (i.e. 3-15% of the target population)

Group or Organization Name

The Advocacy Project

Tell us more about your group or organization [or lived experience as a displaced person?] (1000 characters)

The Advocacy Project (AP) was founded in 1998 by Iain Guest, who has extensive experience working with refugees and civil society as a former reporter and UN official. Our mission is to empower marginalized communities by working through their advocates like Sini Sanuman in Mali. We have sent over 300 graduate students to volunteer with partners and raised over $4 million for their advocacy. Since 2013, we have made ten visits to Mali, including to the north. We have offered story-telling though quilting as a service since 2007, and currently curate over 50 advocacy quilts for partners. Sister Artists is a logical extension of this, with the main difference being that it produces embroidery for sale. Also in 2019, for the first time, we sent a quilter from South Carolina to Nepal to train conflict survivors the making of embroidered bags. Our bridge will enable us to scale up these promising startups and integrate income-generation squarely into future quilting projects.

Website URL:

Type of submitter

  • We are a registered Non-Profit Organization

Organization Headquarters: Country

United States of America

Organization Headquarters: City / State

Washington, D.C.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Zulfiqar Deo

Iain Guest Thanks for posting the project, We are taking a similar approach to rebuild the artisan heritage in the Swat Valley - a post conflict zone. Be great to see if we can knowledge share Business financing for refugee entrepreneurs  has more information about our approach.

Photo of Yemen Without Conflict & ICRD

Hello Iain Guest ,

Thank you for sharing your project with us. It is wonderful to see such an innovative (and creative!) process tackling such a prevalent issue, and I look forward to learning more about your intervention as the process unfolds.

In regards to the BridgeBuilder challenge, I believe your answer in the “Describe the dynamics of the community...” section is a powerful connection to the call to address issues with people on the move. If you were able to emphasize the project’s role in building bridges with survivors of GBV who have been forced to leave their homes, as you do in this section, that could make this proposal even stronger.

I look forward to seeing your progress with this project!