As I planned my cancelled birthday trip to Ghana a few months back, I thought to myself why not do something worthwhile while I am away, instead of spend days sunbathing and stuffing my face with Ghanaian dishes? I researched small organisations that were empowering girls in Accra and after a two-hour search, I came across ABAN through a fellow blogger’s page. Reading about them I was impressed with the way they combined climate change, poverty reduction and women empowerment into one, and in my opinion more organisations should tear a page from their book. Rather than focus on one issue at a time, they should try to harmonise issues which are interlinked; something about killing two birds with one stone. This organisation is looking for long-term solutions for an age-old problem; they are supporting the girls and giving them the basic skills and education needed to manage their own homes and businesses as well as preparing them for for the world of work. And at the same time they are tackling the littering and unemployment problem in Accra. I caught up with Callie Brauel, the founder of ABAN, Lindsay Sebastian the Communications Manager and Rebecca Brandt the Director of Development for a quick chat about poverty reduction and female empowerment.

AG: Tell us about ABAN.

Lindsay Sebastian: ABAN is an organization that works to end the cycle of poverty among marginalized young women in Ghana and empowers them to contribute to the restoration of themselves, their communities and the environment.

Part of ABAN’s funding strategy is through the sale of purses and other accessories made from recycled plastic water bags. These plastic bags provide Ghanaians with pure drinking water, yet 60 tons of this plastic ends up on the streets every day due to inefficient trash collection systems. ABAN recycles 18,000 of these plastic bags every month and couples it with beautiful, hand dyed batik to create purses and bracelets to sell in the United States.

Funds from sales are delegated to a holistic two-year healing program for marginalized and neglected Ghanaian women and their babies. In ABAN’s program, women are taught basic Maths and English, as well as business, savings and elective classes, which teach skills needed to pursue a job after graduating.

We recruit young mothers from the streets of Accra to be part of our two-year program. This process includes meeting with the women consistently, contacting family or elder community members to gain permission for their entry in our program, and a trial run in which they can decide whether or not they want to commit to our two-year program.

AG: What was the motivation behind starting ABAN?

Callie Brauel: There was a sequence of events that lead to ABAN’s creation. Emmanuel, our Ghana Director, and I were paired together to create a mock nonprofit in our nonprofit management class at the University of Ghana and decided we would actually implement our idea. You see, plastic is everywhere in Ghana because there is no formal trash collection system and the only form of safe, cheap drinking water comes in plastic bags. This trash was even on campus and we thought if we could start recycling it and using the raw material to create coin and pencil cases we could generate environmental awareness. Meanwhile, Rebecca and I were reading a very haunting book, Faceless, about the plight of street children in Accra. Suddenly, we started questioning everything: why weren’t they in school? Why did they have to work at such a young age? Where did they sleep? Did they have family? These questions led us to volunteering at a day shelter for these children. We soon saw the stories represented in Faceless (by Amma Darko) firsthand. We especially connected with young ladies. It seemed so unfair at the disparity between us. Because of where we were born we had been given so much opportunity and these girls were our age or younger. They were facing things we couldn’t even comprehend on the streets. A light went off that if we could help these girls find a way to a sustainable income; they could change their futures and so we brought in our class project. That idea was the birth of ABAN.

AG: How would you define female empowerment, with regards to what you do?

Callie Brauel: Meet Gifty. She loves to eat and followed her dreams to work in the food industry. She is a caterer at a hotel outside of Accra. She makes more than double the minimum wage in Ghana. She speaks English fluently and reads often to her 3-year-old, Nana Ama. She rents a house and is saving to put her daughter through school. She goes to church often and comes to the ABAN house to mentor other girls. She has an infectious smile and is always making people laugh. When asked what is most special in her life, she answered: “My daughter, Nana Ama, because my mother gave birth to me alone and so with Nana Ama, I find a sister and a daughter.”

Just three years ago, Gifty was on the street, homeless, selling oranges and making $1 a day. She was pregnant. Her boyfriend and family had abandoned her. She couldn’t speak English. She could only make ends meet day to day and couldn’t dream about her future or fathom that life could be different.

This is the transformation that ABAN enables in these young girls. Gifty’s story embodies this empowerment.

AG: Tell us more about these recycled handbags that the ABAN girls are making.

Lindsay Sebastian: When ABAN started out, the girls were responsible for sewing our products. Our program was only focused on economic development in the women and the products were our source of revenue. However, soon after starting, we realized the young women needed much more than just economic empowerment to break the cycle of poverty. We developed our one-year economic program into the two-year holistic residential program we have now, which includes literacy and math classes, business and savings classes, and introduction to various elective programs that will help them get apprenticeships and jobs after graduation. Additionally, the girls have access to our social workers for counseling sessions to help them with healing of the mind.

The 20 girls in the two-year program are still responsible for sewing a few specialty products. We use this production as an introduction to sewing and teaching them good work habits, before introducing them to other vocational options like catering, hair dressing and hospitality services.

But as our demand has outstripped our ability to produce without taking away from the girls’ development, we now employ local seamstresses and tailors from the town our compound in Ghana is located in. We have 12 Ghanaian artisans working with us to produce the products under our sibling organization: ABAN Community Employment (ACE). ACE not only allows us to meet our demand in the United States, but gives us a direct tie to our local community and is a mutually supportive system for the young women in the ABAN program. Additionally, ACE allows us to hire some of our ABAN graduates that are interested in sewing. Currently two of our ACE employees have participated in the ABAN program.

Each purse is a combination of recycled plastic bags and hand-dyed batik fabric. Our current designs range from traditional adinkra symbols to African animals like giraffes to simple patterns. We make all types of purses including tote bags, clutches, and coin purses. Each purse has a recycled glass keychain attached to it. All of the products are named after a woman or child that has benefitted from the ABAN program. Our bestselling product is the Blessing Bag, named after a child of one of ABAN’s program participant. People have told us they use the Blessing Bag in a variety of ways: as a coin purse, a wallet, a small makeup bag, a jewelry bag, the list is endless!

AG: What is the reality for girls living on the streets of Accra?

Rebecca Brandt: For years established aid organizations estimated there to be around 15,000 street youth in the capital city of Accra.  But in 2010, Ghana’s Department of Social Welfare took a thorough census and identified over 61,000 street children in the Greater Accra Region, with adolescent mothers and their children making up an especially vulnerable and growing sub-population.

Any youth living on the street typically work long hours at labor-intensive jobs.  Although many may have been sent to the city by their families in hope of bringing home extra funds, these children often barely make enough money to fill their stomachs. As such, they find themselves living hand-to-mouth without savings.  At night they are exposed to elements like rain and mosquitoes, which carry malaria, and are also at risk of physical danger from strangers and even authorities. Girls are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment and abuse.  “Transactional sex” which is the exchanging of sex for gifts or money often leaves these young women with unwanted sexually transmitted diseases and even pregnancies, which begins another generation born onto the streets.

For these and many other reasons, most girls choose to travel and live in groups or packs, remaining transient among busy market places for their own protection.  Sharing such traumatic and trying circumstances often creates a deep bond and dedication to one another, so that these young women recognize one another as family in their home away from home: the street.

AG: Is poverty really the issue here or do you think that there are several other factors hidden behind this veil of ‘poverty’?

Rebecca Brandt: According to a study by the World Health Organization, across sub-Saharan Africa, more than 50 percent of girls give birth before the age of 20, significantly disrupting their already slim chances of education and career development. Lack of support from schools, sociocultural expectations and pressures of motherhood, lack of childcare options, stigma and bullying from peers make it very unlikely that young mothers will return to school after childbirth.  As a result, many single adolescent mothers also seek opportunity in major cities like Accra to provide for themselves and their families. In fact, despite deliberate government attempts to provide free public education for all, some 58.4 percent of the nearly 62,000 street children in Accra are school drop outs and 41.6 percent report never having attended school at all (Census Data). In effect, there is a clear link between lack of essential needs, education and career opportunities for young people in Ghana.

AG: What is the future for young women in Africa?

Rebecca Brandt:  If I’ve learned anything from the women I’ve met through ABAN, if I’ve seen anything clearly demonstrated through their lifestyle, it’s that the challenges of life, no matter their magnitude, need not defeat us.  Rather, if allowed these challenges can compound character evolving resilient women who have no intention but to love and forgive while fighting for justice.  The future for young women in Africa has begun.  For perhaps the first time in history, women themselves are able to speak truth and demand nothing short of justice and equality – for they and their families, communities and even those whom may have oppressed them.

AG:  How can we be part of this movement?

Lindsay Sebastian: The easiest way to be involved with ABAN is through the purchase of our products. We have a variety of purses and jewelry for sale and all funds are dedicated to our two-year ABAN program. By purchasing a product, you are becoming an advocate for ABAN! The plastic inside and colorful batik designs are sure to grab people’s attention and start a conversation.

Another way to contribute is through donations. We are currently a Global Giving approved organization and accept donations of any amount year-round.

If you’re interested in telling your friends about our mission, an ABAN Party is a great way to do this! We have a kit that will provide you with all the necessary supplies including sample products, DVDs with our presentation and videos, and instructions on how to best share our mission and story.

Lastly, we’re always looking for new partners to sell our products, so if you have connections to an online marketplace or stores in your area please let us know!

You can stay up-to-date with ABAN, their promotions and stories, on Facebook or Twitter.