Kiwi tackles the social fabric through fashion and freedom
Laura Monahan is fighting for freedom in Africa, and believes fashion can play a part as she teaches young women dealing with abuse to walk bold and dream big. David James reports.
"Each day I live between a contrast of dusty red dirt, severe poverty and picture-perfect beaches."
These are the words of Blenheim woman Laura Monahan, who is making a world of difference to young women in Africa.
The 31-year-old has been living in Pemba, Mozambique since May 2015 having founded The Liberty Project, an organisation that provides women dealing with sexual abuse, oppression and exploitation a safe place to live and work.
The statistics for northern Mozambique are alarming. Almost 95 per cent of women in the region have experienced sexual assault, nearly a quarter have been married out before the age of 14 and almost three quarters of young women are married before the age of 18.
HIV and AIDS are common, while many women are forced into prostitution.
"In Pemba, the cultural practice of 'transactional sex' fragments and destroys society on many levels," Laura says. "There is a cultural expectation placed on females in the Macua culture that tells women that their strength and worth is based on their ability to sell their bodies to multiple partners in return for food, phone credit or money for their families."
One of the ways in which Laura wants to raise awareness for The Liberty Project, and The Liberty Centre, is through a new fashion label called The Collective Africa.
"The Collective Africa came about very organically last September when teaching locals how to sew European designs. This blossomed into an opportunity to create beautiful garments with the vision to sell to Westerners in a less tourist market.
"I saw an opportunity to create something unique and create a brand that would show women here that they can dream big, above and beyond what they have been told they can achieve."
With a bid to attract wider attention to the cause, Laura is releasing a new clothing collection later this year, which she says will be more in line with recent global trends.
The new designs, while being well-placed and attractive within the fashion market, will also appeal to the socially-conscious buyer, she says.
"This will be a vehicle of developing dreams for local women and a way to impact other women globally. By simply purchasing a garment and 'putting on boldness' – that is, walking boldly in colour and having fun, we believe every woman has been fashioned for freedom ... and this is our brand motto."
Part of The Liberty Project's vision is to vocationally train women in sewing and clothing design as well as other areas, and The Collective Africa will provide employment at the end of this programme for women who have a passion in this area.
The Collective Africa and The Liberty Project are seeking partnership and donors in order to help build The Liberty Centre.
Laura says they have found a beach front property that they want to build on to provide respite and restoration for young girls and women who have come from backgrounds of abuse.
"The need is so great for a tailored, holistic programme for these women, and so we have a vision to offer one-on-one care, including counselling, vocational skills training, educational support and employment. We want to equip them to walk free. We would love to see Kiwis get involved and invest into the lives of these women and they can do that by simply purchasing a garment from The Collective Africa or by financially partnering with us for our centre build."
It is hard to fault the passion and vision of Laura, who is starting to make a name for herself in the fashion world, while establishing a brand that represents new ethical trends in the clothing industry.
Laura says she is training four new seamstresses for her new summer designs. The summer collection, Laura says, will be shown in a trendy part of Johannesburg, which means consumers are starting to respond positively to the new designs.
"Gosh, I have some beautiful Capulana prints (Capulana is what the African fabric is called in Mozambique). It's exciting seeing them come to life in a garment, [but] it can also be stressful though with the pressure of having limited access to quantities of fabrics over here."
Laura believes that current fashion buying trends are changing as people become more aware of manufacturing practises for mass-produced items.
There is greater recognition now that clothing manufacturing has environmental and human costs, she says.
"I think it's important for people to assess their buying habits. How it not only affects their wardrobes, but the people who are involved in the manufacturing end. These are often people who are far less off than you and I.
"We have a responsibility to know what we are buying, and when we wear something it's great to know that we can wear it with pride knowing we are making a difference in the lives of others."