Feature story

Fashion designer joins hands with HIV positive women in Cambodia

10 September 2008

This story first appeared on UNDP.org

Fashion designer Bibi Russell (right)
Credit: Shaju John for UNDP

Internationally-renowned fashion designer Bibi Russell, along with UNDP and the Modern Dress Sewing Factory (MDSF), has launched an international designer label "Bibi for WE".

Under this brand, MDSF - an all-women business subsidiary of the network of people living with HIV in Cambodia - will produce and market a range of bags under the "Bibi for WE" international label. These will be designed by Bibi Russell, who was synonymous with leading international designer-labels and fashion-houses of the 1970s and 1980s.

"If you join hands with women living with HIV with affection and confidence, they can create magic with their fingers," said Bibi who is also an APLF (Asia Pacific Leadership Forum on HIV/AIDS and Development) Champion and founder of "Fashion for Development," a movement seeking to help women weavers around the world.

The designs will use local materials such as Cambodian silk and showcase local cultural motifs. Bibi has trained HIV-positive women in the selection of materials, design, finishing and quality control.

"We don’t want sympathy, but support to live a life of respect and dignity," said Pham Srim, Business Manager at MDSF. "Severe poverty and stigma make our lives impossible. We have recurrent health problems and have to fend for our treatment, food and shelter; but the most crushing is the discrimination by society" she said. "With HIV, one can lead a normal and productive life - that is the message of WE," she added. 

"WE is a symbol of resilience and resolve by women in the face of ill-health, poverty and discrimination," said Mr. Douglas Broderick, Resident Representative of UNDP in Cambodia. He said the label represents a new hope and empowerment for all the women living with HIV in Cambodia. He urged the private sector and general public to generously support the initiative.

"This project is very innovative and will go a long way to assist women living with HIV in Cambodia to improve their situation," said Jane Batte, UNAIDS Social Mobilization Officer.

UNAIDS and other UN agencies, through the United Nations Country Team (UNCT), will provide advocacy assistance and support in marketing the products on the international market.

Women and Wealth Project

In Asia and the Pacific, the impact of HIV on a household is disproportionately borne by women. In response to the social and economic issues affecting the lives of HIV-positive women, the UNDP Regional HIV and Development Programme for Asia and the Pacific initiated the Women and Wealth Project (WWP) in late 2006, in partnership with a Thai NGO, Population and Community Development Association and UNDP country offices.

Ms. Caitlin Wiesen, Practice Team Leader and Regional Programme Coordinator, Regional HIV and Development Programme, said "Bibi for WE" is a milestone in the evolution of the WWP. "Women and Wealth and the WE brand arose out of the acute necessity of positive women to cope socially and economically with the impact of the epidemic on their lives." Innovation and sustainability are the essential features of the Women and Wealth project, she said.

WWP pursues the empowerment of women living with and affected by HIV through the development of small-scale social enterprises in Cambodia and India. Women participating in the project have expressed increased confidence, dignity, and hope and reduced stigma and discrimination against them. The Modern Dress Sewing Factory (MDSF) started its operations in Cambodia in January 2007. The garment factory employs 17 women living with HIV, including three women who form the management team.

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is a Cosponsor of UNAIDS.