Diana Mao, president of the nonprofit organization Nomi Network, offers an inside glimpse into how they are using design education to better the lives of women. Nomi Network creates economic opportunities for survivors and women at risk of human trafficking by equipping them with leadership, entrepreneurship, and production skills to become financially independent. Its basic curriculum teaches women not only sewing and manufacturing skills, but also basic literacy, mathematics, financial planning, and micro-finance so that they can enter the workforce and have agency, individually and as a community. Nomi Network believes in a world without slavery where every woman can know her full potential.

Can you tell me just a little bit more about Nomi and how it was started?

Diana Mao: Nomi Network is named after a girl named Nomi whom I met in 2008. She’s a survivor of sex trafficking and at the time was eight years old. At that point I was really more attuned to the issue of human trafficking and spent a lot of time in villages where women and children are often sourced because of their circumstances of poverty and lack of opportunity. When I met Nomi she had this really vibrant spirit about her. We thought her name was really representative of what we wanted to do for people—to know me, know my story, know my success. The success part is what the Nomi Network tackles. Specifically we do that by providing training and job opportunities for survivors and women at risk of human trafficking.

It’s been so critical in the fight against human trafficking because—besides the plethora of reasons why humans get exploited—some of the key variables are a lack of opportunity and poverty. In the places we work in Northern India, 95 percent of women are illiterate, so the choices they have at the age of fourteen could be either working in a textile mill, working in a brothel, or being married off at a young age, and really having no investment in their lives from the get go. So we see that for us, being in hotspots like Northern India and in Cambodia where there is a frequency of human trafficking of girls and very young girls, that it has been a critical piece in helping them just see their self-worth, building their self-confidence, and most importantly helping them secure economic agency. That agency has led to girls that we support in India having scholarships that we issue so they can go to medical college or law school.

Migrant Sugar Cane Project

Photo credit: David Goldman Photo

Prior to our program, these girls didn’t even know it was possible that they could pass their entrance exam to go to college. So that’s what we’ve done on a small scale with girls. But on a large scale, the women, they secure life skills. We address their barriers to work. A lot of times it’s social, caste system-oriented as well as psychological, and so we help lift them out of the mentality that they can’t do it, that they’re scared to leave their village to even come to class, sometimes because of the social stigma of being a woman in the area, or the social stigma being of that particular caste.

Since 2012, we’ve been working in Northern India, not just addressing these specific barriers, but really creating an ecosystem where women can thrive, have savings, send their daughters to school, and are able to get out of hostile circumstances where they’re abused in their current huts. They’re able to use their savings to relocate, build another hut, secure electricity, secure a stove, these type of things that have led them to really improve their household and their personal circumstances, and in many cases, the trajectory of circumstances for their children.

I’ve looked at your website, buyherbagnotherbody.com. Is that the primary component of Nomi right now, or is that just one sub-component?

DM: That is a separate project. Our primary is our curriculum—our fashion institute in Cambodia, and then our rural training curriculum in India. One small part of the job is a good entry point in in fashion and in production. So we do have a small collection of products that we sell, and we help retailers and brands identify groups to source products from where they could tell their good story, and we do more of the backend work of lifting up women, particularly to get to a place where they can even make a bag. Many of the women that we work with in Northern India don’t even know how to sign their name before entering our program. Coming from that point to being able to use a ruler, measure precisely, and then of course make a product is a huge leap for them. So the product really is a small part of what we do, but the larger part is really working with partners and getting them employment and sustained employment.

How many women have gone through your various programs at this point?

DM: For our various programs in India and Cambodia last year, we served nearly 1,000 women.

Photo credit: David Goldman Photo

Photo credit: David Goldman Photo

And what does it cost to send women through your program?

DM: For our rural program, it’s a little bit more expensive. That is about $1,500-2,000, depending on if they do a 12-month or 18-month curriculum, but start in the next year we’re going to decrease that cost to about $700, through using technology, video learning, and some of the apps that we are privy to. We’re in the process of developing that, so that’s exciting.

The key reason why rural women around the world are not reached is because of the cost and also the lack of human capital that’s willing to serve in those areas. So with our curriculum—we’ve tested it—we’ve seen some impact. We’re finding ways and using our creativity to see how we can really reduce that barrier by leveraging some of the things that we have access to in the United States.

So in addition to the technology, do you have other upcoming initiatives that you’re planning for?

DM: Yeah, we have our gala on May 2nd in New York City. Our honorees include Patagonia, and the founder of Grace Farms, this huge, beautiful architectural space that’s won many awards. She’s dedicated it to offering free space for anti-trafficking organizations in Connecticut and around New York City—around the world actually. Our third honoree is still to be announced.

We also will be having a trip, once we’ve been given funding, to build a training and innovation center in Northern India—a place where there’s lack of potable water, and electricity. We’ve been working with architects to build it. The first phase of the building will be completed in December, so in January, we will be inviting supporters and select individuals who are really passionate to join us for this trip. It’s also something where you can see firsthand what’s going on on the ground.

Very exciting. You know I have of course a special love of projects like that.

DM: Yes, I’m so inspired when I walk into an architecture firm, and I see all the renderings and specifications posted on the walls. It’s so inspirational. And to have this space for the women, it’s been such a great inspiration for the team— a place where they can be safe, a place where they can learn, a place where we can grow and serve more women. Right now, we rent the best office space we can in India, and it’s very small. Having a space of our own is just so exciting.

portraits_ Photo credit: David Goldman Photo

Photo credit: David Goldman Photo

I can imagine. Are there any special success stories that stand out in your mind? I’m sure there are many, many, many, but any special ones?

DM: Definitely. We had a girl who is born into a family that practices inter-generational prostitution. Thankfully, we got to her when she was younger and not prostituted, to our knowledge. And so she joined our program, was able to save, and then her mother, who had been prostituted but at the time no longer, got out of the brothels. She also joined our program, and so with their combined stipend savings, her mother was able to open up a poultry business. As of this past year when I visited, they were earning 10,000 rupees per day. That’s in revenue, not net, but regardless, it’s astronomical because the average semiskilled laborer who is a man in that area earns about 200 rupees per day. That’s the average wage in essence.

Having gone through our program, and having the leadership intrinsically built in her really drawn out, and now being able to have a safe and secure environment, even start and grow her own business is incredible. We know that not every woman in our program can start their own business, but we do anticipate that a percentage of the women we train have a strong aptitude, desire and passion to start their own and create their own jobs. That’s been an extremely successful story for us to be able to see her path and journey from the beginning until this point.

Our goal over the next five years is to train and empower 100,000 women who on average support 400,000 children. That’s a very, very ambitious goal and we believe in setting goals like this. Really the task is to build a network that can support that. I hope that we can have more firms and individuals join us in this business.

If people are interested in supporting your organization, what are the various ways that they can do that?

DM: People in our network have run marathons to raise funds for Nomi, launched birthday campaigns in lieu of receiving a birthday gift, and encouraged their friends and family to donate to us. You can sign up to sponsor a woman who’s on our wait list—a monthly sponsorship, Sponsor Her. And then of course traditionally just giving to our organization. You can also go on our website and purchase a bag that’s directly made from our program participant or a partner organization. 100 percent of those proceeds goes directly back to our programs and our organization as well.

To learn more about the Nomi Network and Buy Her Bag Not Her Body, visit their website at www.nominetwork.org or www.buyherbagnotherbody.com 

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