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Female Created Southern California Accessory Company, 31 Bits, Works To Empower Ugandan Women One Necklace Sale At A Time

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Shopping for a cause has become a trend driving American consumers' purchases in recent years. From Tom's to Warby Parker, which both utilize a one-for-one model companies are increasingly seeking ways to utilize their products to create a greater impact. Beyond the one-for-one trend lies companies who are utilizing proceeds from sales to directly impact the artisans and labor working to create their products. As the holiday season approaches, one female-created business is not only bringing fashionable jewelry to consumers, but also working to empower women in Uganda.

In 2007, a then 21-year-old Kallie Thomson headed from Orange County, California to Uganda. 2007 marked one year after the closure of the internally displaced persons ("IDP") camps the Ugandan government forced northern Ugandans into in the wake of Joseph Kony's terror over the country and its people. Under Kony's reign, young Ugandan boys were stolen from their homes at night and drug into a darkness filled with terror. If they didn't march their feet fast enough into the void, the other children soldiers Kony had stolen were forced to murder them. The young girls that Kony and his troops captured were oftentimes forced to be "brides" of Kony's soldiers and endured frequent rapes. As Kony marched through Uganda, he not only swept up its young people's innocence, but also allegedly took the lives of over 100,000 people.

As the last IDP closed and the terror of Kony slowed, another ugly truth emerged: Uganda's economy was victimized. When northern Ugandans exited the IDP camps in 2006, they left without any belongings and few ways to earn a significant living. With one crisis slowly foddering out, another emerged: How to rebuild an economy destroyed by guerilla warfare and encourage its tortured population to begin living again.

It was in this landscape that a young, bright-eye and hopeful Thomson sought to impact a community beyond her college home of California. Thomson initially went to Uganda to utilize her nutrition-based education to work in orphanages and ensure that children were fed properly. Realizing that many of the children in Ugandan orphanages are poverty orphans, children whose biological parents are alive but turn them over to orphanages because they cannot financially take care of them, a light went off in Thomson's head: What if she could help Ugandan children's mothers avoid the economic crises that force many of them to give up their babies to orphanages?

One day while working in an after school program in Uganda, Thomson met a group of women making jewelry composed of intricate beads crafted out of paper the women had acquired from old posters. After getting to know the women, they invited Thomson into their homes. Inside the walls of their homes, Thomson was provided a glimpse into the life of post-IDP displaced Ugandan women. These women not only lived in deep poverty, but Thomson also recognized that many of the women's lives were also impacted by domestic violence, HIV/AIDS and illiteracy. In their work, though, Thomson saw women who dreamed of more for their lives--women who wished for a future.

While the then 21-year-old Thomson knew she wanted to help the women she met in Uganda, her path towards doing so wouldn't become clear until a group of the women, upon learning that Thomson was headed back to the United States, asked if she could sell their jewelry there. "I was taking some development classes at the time, but I was really nervous about making a commitment to sell their jewelry. I was 21-years-old, and doing so felt over my head. There are so many people who come in and out of their lives with the best of intentions who say they're going to do things for them, but then things don't work out. I didn't want that to happen, so I told them all I could do was buy a big box of the jewelry from them," Thomson noted.

With her box of Ugandan beaded jewelry in hand, Thomson headed back to the United States and the place she calls home, Klamath Falls, Oregon. A small farming community, Thomson's high school hosts a craft fair every holiday season. Little did she know, but her hometown high school's craft fair not only ended up paving Thomson's destiny, but provided a platform to help some of Uganda's neediest women. "I just went up there and brought the box. It was gone in a week. I thought that if the jewelry could sale in Klamath Falls, then it could sell everywhere," Thomson recalled.

That realization powered the founding of 31 Bits, an accessory company based in southern California, whose lines are created by Ugandan artisans. 31 Bits, though, is more than accessory company. Rather, Thomson and her four classmates at the time, Alli Swanson, Anna Toy, Brooke Hodges, and Jessie Simonson, sought to restore in Uganda's women what had been taken from them. The group of then 21-year-olds studying at Vanguard University in Orange County, California were determined to not only provide female Ugandan artisans with fair wages for their accessory designs, but also with an education, coping skills and empowerment.

In 2008, Thomson moved to Uganda to develop 31 Bits' Ugandan development program, while her four classmates remained in California to build 31 Bits' business by selling the jewelry to classmates and at craft fairs. Initially, there were six Ugandan women in 31 Bits' development program. Within six months, that number jumped to 30. After a year, 60 women were participating in the program. Today, 31 Bits works to empower 165 Ugandan women between the ages of 19 to 61 through its five-year holistic development program. "The first year in Uganda was all about learning what the women needed. Our program is based on the needs we've learned about over the last six years and addressing the needs of the women we work with," Thomson explained.

For women in northern Uganda, the needs aren't simple. Yet, they aren't unique to the country, as American women face some of the same issues that Ugandan women encounter. "We had to address domestic violence first," Thomson noted. Gender-based violence against women is a lasting effect of the wars that have been carried out across Uganda's soil. According to the United Nations, 59-percent of ever-married women between the ages of 15 and 49 in Uganda have experienced physical or sexual violence.

To help Ugandan women overcome domestic violence, 31 Bits not only provides them with counseling and psychosocial education, but also brings the community's men into the conversation. Through monthly men-to-men talks, 31 Bits hopes to end the cycle of domestic violence in Uganda by allowing men in families to discuss the role they play in empowering their families. "We look at a person as a whole. Our programs address what's going on physically, spiritually, economically and socially. Every person struggles with things in each of these areas. With respect to domestic violence education, we address how to handle a confrontation and work with your family members or husband. We do a lot of trauma training; a lot of our women have gone through different trauma than that solely related to the war," Thomson explained.

Another important program 31 Bits provides the women in its development program is HIV testing and treatment. Of the orphans in Uganda, one million were orphaned due to AIDS, according to the United Nations. As of 2013, 7.4-percent of Ugandan adults are HIV or AIDS positive. However, the disease disproportionately affects young women. For those between 20-24 years of age, 6.3-percent of women and 2.4-percent of men are HIV positive in Uganda. The UN attributes the higher prevalence of HIV and AIDS amongst Uganda's women in part to the sexual violence carried out against women and women's inability to negotiate for safer sex.

While sexual violence and the inability to negotiate for safer sex have caused Ugandan women to fall victim to HIV and AIDS at higher rates than men, lack of access to education has prevented large numbers of these women from properly treating their conditions. "Most of our women are uneducated. When they find out they are HIV positive, they generally receive one hour of education on how to handle the disease. For a woman who is illiterate, that is not enough to learn about what their body is going through," Thomson explained.

According to Thomson, 23-percent of women in 31 Bits' development program are HIV positive. Recognizing that these women weren't being properly counseled and educated about the disease, 31 Bits partnered with The AIDS Support Organization (TASO) to ensure that the women not only receive proper testing and care, but knowledge about their condition. "The education is really miscued. There was one woman in our program who was buying HIV medicine on the black market and taking it after being with an HIV positive partner. She was doing this even though she had never been tested. She didn't want to get tested, because in Uganda, there is so much stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS, and she didn't want anyone to know. She lived with the fear and burden that she had HIV for two years. Then, she was tested on our compound and the test showed that she was HIV negative. She was so stoked, but she couldn't believe it, so she had us test her again. And again, it showed that she was negative," Thomson recalled.

While that woman's story was one to celebrate, not every woman that 31 Bits serves sees the same results. "We're stoked to have the testing on our compound, because we get to be with the women right when they find out. Sometimes, though, it's a time of mourning. Sometimes, we have to talk with the women about what it looks like to be HIV positive and help her decide when it's time to share her status and be open with people," Thomson said.

Since 2007, Thomson and her college friends have worked tirelessly to give back the pieces of women's lives that were taken away from them by Kony's terror. More than returning Ugandan women to where they were before Kony's reign began in 1986, though, 31 Bits seeks to give Ugandan women something more important: A future. Noting that "every purchase you make can either have a positive or negative impact on the world," 31 Bits is not only focused upon bringing quality, designer jewelry to fashion forward women, but on empowering women to be their best. "We enter a woman into the program based on need. We are not looking at whether they are the best qualified to make jewelry. Rather, we are looking at who needs this job and who needs it right now. That woman could be a 19-year-old who has two kids, or it could be a 60-year-old who has seven kids and her daughter died, so she has to take care of her daughter's kids, too," Thomson explained.

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