When you run an endeavor with a name like ‘the garbage ladies,’ you attract attention from the name alone. Often people try to correct us, ‘you mean the garbage men.’ No, we are the garbage (wo)men. Our name in Turkish is a play on words, whereby one letter, ‘m,’ changes the gender. While Melih, my business partner, is indeed male, everyone else involved directly is a woman. After all, that is rather the point of what we are trying to do, provide opportunities for those for whom opportunities did not previously exist. Or if they did in actuality, they were not perceived as being there. Few of our ladies have more than a fifth grade education, all but one are married, and they all keep a spotless house. Working outside was not an option for many reasons, including that the husbands would not want it, but also that the women so often have not been comfortable beyond familiar surroundings.
If you ask our ladies why they come to the workshop, the first thing they will tell you is ‘because I feel good when I come here,’ or ‘being here gives me a chance to grow, to improve myself.’ The second reason will be for the financial benefit. Our ladies are paid by the piece and essentially earn just as much as they want to. Never before have they been able to be affirmed for their work, have they felt a purpose other than being a mother, a wife, a homemaker. They have a difficult time putting their feelings into words. Peter Gabriel and Youssou N’Dour put it well in ‘Shaking the Tree,’ ‘waiting your time, you’re more than just a wife…changing your ways, more than any man can do.’ Yes, that is what our ladies are doing.
If you have never been paid for your work previously, your first salary is something to celebrate. Because we are a small business, we pay our workers in cash. They earn from 20 to 1,000 Turkish lira, about $15 – 750 per month. Their reactions are mixed but always laden with emotion. No one receives their first pay without double kisses, one on each cheek. The first time they receive their payment, our ladies cry, they beam with joy, or they laugh out of nervousness. It’s one of those mixed feelings to be providing the first money while at the same time being so aware that these women have missed out on so many opportunities over the years.
‘I can buy my son a new desk to do his homework on.’ ‘I can pay my electricity on time.’ The first salary is never for themselves, always for their children and/or the household. Subsequent salaries however, may be spent on themselves. ‘I’m off to the market for a new pair of trousers.’ ‘I’m getting my teeth fixed.’ ‘I no longer have to ask my husband for cigarette money.’
I mentioned that I had gone out to breakfast with some friends. Several of my ladies followed that lead and went out to breakfast the following week. Previously, that would have been unthinkable. One does not spend money on eating out, especially breakfast. The concept took off so that, when business was really good, more than half our ladies let themselves be so decadent.
People ask how we measure our successes, our progress. I am not always sure. My development-o-meter would include a measuring device that would register the impact of spending one’s own money as one wishes; feeling confident enough to figure out how to get to the nearest private hospital and to go there on your own; being able to tell your husband that yes, after all these years, you will work outside the home; looking your boss in the eye when she says your work is not good enough and asking her to point out why. And by taking yourself out for breakfast.
Those women who stay with us do so because they feel part of what we are doing; they feel they are the real garbage ladies. At the end of the day, it is quite humbling to see them continue, to see them grow and change. Anyone who reads this blog has had so many more opportunities in life than our ladies have had. When I get frustrated when things are not going as I wish they were, when we are having communication problems, when I tell them the colors to use but they still get the tones wrong, I recall the words of a dear friend, another man, who reminded me that progress is not always linear nor is it consistent.
We may be the garbage ladies but we know that there are a lot of men out there who support us. Our thanks go to them as well as to those who know that we are wrecking the status quo and let us get on with it.