Cultural Champion Empowers T’boli Women Through Dreamweaving

Posted on
October 10, 2023
Written by:
Trish Lim Francia
Cultural Champion Empowers T’boli Women Through Dreamweaving

In Lake Sebu, T’boli women are traditionally limited to domestic duties with the men serving as the breadwinners and decision-makers. However, one social entrepreneur set out to empower T’boli women weavers and improve their overall quality of life through the art of dreamweaving.

T’nalak weaving was a practice passed on from generation to generation in the town of Lake Sebu, South Cotabato. It was believed that Fu Dalu, the goddess of abaca, appeared in the dreams of tribe members and taught them to weave abaca strands – dyed in the traditional colors of red and black – into patterns. The goddess manifested only to a select few, and these women were accorded the status "dreamweavers."

Traditionally, the t’nalak cloth was used at home as blankets and clothing, and in special occasions such as royal weddings. While the patterns originated from dreams and Fu Dalu herself, dreamweavers were allowed to share the designs with other women so they could recreate patterns for themselves. It soon made its way to the hands of metropolitan designers and artisans, who used the cloth to make bags, wallets, coin purses, gadget sleeves, and other commercial items.

One woman saw the opportunity in this trend. Wanting to create positive change within her community, Jenita Eko decided to turn the T’boli tradition of weaving into an empowering and income-generating activity for the women of Lake Sebu.

In celebration of National Indigenous People's Month, we shine the spotlight on the founder and president of the Lake Sebu Indigenous Women Weavers Association, Inc. (LASIWWAI). An advocate for women empowerment and gender equality, Jenita founded LASIWWAI together with fellow T’boli, Jelly Escarlote, to carry on the dreams and aspirations of Indigenous Peoples through holistic education, cultural integrity, women empowerment, and sustainable livelihoods.

We had a chat with Jenita and asked some questions about her advocacy and social enterprise.

Why work with Indigenous People?

By working with us, Indigenous People, we can help preserve and protect our cultural heritage, ensuring that it continues to thrive and enrich humanity’s collective cultural diversity. Indigenous Communities have a deep connection to the land and have a profound understanding of sustainable practices. They possess traditional knowledge and wisdom regarding biodiversity conservation, natural resource management, and ecological balance.

What are the biggest challenges in running your SE?

Social Enterprise often operates with a dual bottom line, focusing on social impact and financial Sustainability. Balancing these two objectives can be challenging, as decisions that maximize social impact may not align with maximizing profits. Finding balance between the two can be a continuous struggle. Limited access to funding and investment opportunities can also hinder financial sustainability.

What are the most urgent issues you hope to address?

Empowering our people to become active participants in economic activities and decision-making processes. We indigenous peoples often face social, economic, and political marginalization, and our rights are frequently violated. By working together, we can address historical injustices and promote social justice.

What significant changes have you seen in your community and in LASIWWAI ever since starting your social enterprise?

Women were not visible in the community as they had no participation or voice in important matters. Young girls were not encouraged to go to school, so there were a lot of early marriages. Since we established LASIWWAI, we’ve seen a 90% reduction in pre-arranged and polygamous marriages, more women are taking up leadership roles and earning a living from weaving. We have artisans also earning as community guides, weavers and as Cultural Masters.

What is your advice for the next generation in terms of preserving and protecting T’boli Culture and heritage?

Starting a social enterprise is a journey that requires dedication, hard work and a long-term commitment to make a difference. Always use your vision as a guide in all that you do and never underestimate the power of ideas and actions to create meaningful impact in the community.

Develop resilience and perseverance to overcome obstacles and learn from failures.

What is your dream for LASIWWAI?

Through LASIWWAI, we wish to empower every community member, giving them a voice, resources, and opportunities.

What are your concrete plans for the future?

We will explore opportunities to scale our social enterprise’s impact, which involves expanding operations and reaching new markets. To strengthen organizational capacity, we aim to create a skilled team and establish a robust system for monitoring, evaluation, and impact measurement. At the same time, we continue to lobby for the Geographical Indication Mark Legislation over T’nalak Handicraft.

The Bayan Family of Foundations (BFF) uplifts Filipino social enterprises like LASIWWAI and supports various social impact projects.

In 2018, Gina Lopez’s ILOVE Foundation and Bayan SEARCH launched Quest for Love, a nationwide search for organizations addressing social and environmental issues.

LASIWWAI was selected as one of the winners, receiving financial and technical support, and mentorship opportunities from ILOVE Foundation and its partners for eight months.

The SE was also a finalist in the 2016 BPI Sinag Accelerate program. You can read about LASIWWAI and other social enterprises in the book "Technology, Social and Market Innovations in Social Enterprises: The BPI Sinag Accelerate Initiative" published by Bayan Academy.