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This female soap-maker is helping women fight COVID-19 and Cyclone Amphan in Bangladesh
By Jill Rocco
May 29, 2020
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700 Rivers Featured on WOMANBOSS
Photo of Bangladeshi artisan handmaking masks to be donated to orphanages and refugee camps in response to Cyclone Amphan
“It is hard to improve your life or start over when you are stuck in a cycle of poverty and focused on surviving.”

Last week, Cyclone Amphan made its way through the coast of Bangladesh and India. Being miles away from where it was, it became hard to imagine how we all might be of help. Other than shaking my head as I watched the news unfold, I felt helpless knowing that the natural disaster escalated the already brutal situation those people were facing combatting COVID-19.  In an area where physical social distancing was so hard due to such close living quarters, a cyclone of this magnitude only complicated things further. While my thoughts were with those trapped in the unfortunate turmoil, Catherina (Cathy) Gomes, a founder of an ethical lifestyle product brand from North Carolina took immediate action.   

Cathy’s parents lived in Bangladesh before moving to the US to chase the American Dream in 1992. Cathy’s mother was 25 years old when she immigrated to the other side of the world and was already a wife and a mother, with another one on the way. She was married in Bangladesh at 19 and left college to prioritize being a mother. Interestingly enough, Cathy was also 25 when she created 700 Rivers. "I was 3 years into my chemical engineering career, unmarried with no children, and I had the opportunity to use my extra time and income to focus on what I wanted my life to be and how I wanted to use my education, talents, and developed skills to give back to others,” says Cathy.  

As a kid growing up, Cathy would often visit Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, where her grandparents lived, and saw first-hand how impoverished the place was in contrast to her all-modern living in America.  She later came to a fundamental realization that there was no real difference between herself and the women in Bangladesh, other than the fact that her parents made the decision to move across the world.

Dhaka featured on WOMANBOSS
Photo of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh 

Like most of us, Cathy makes her own life decisions, and takes action to determine her own future – this is not the case for many Bangladeshi women.  “Women are not considered equal and their education and careers are not prioritized as they are for men. I have always known how fortunate I am for being able to grow up in a land of opportunity but I started thinking about the women in Bangladesh (and all over the world) that do not have the means to uproot their lives to a country of opportunity and what that means for their lives, their futures, and their children’s future. So, I set out to create an opportunity,” says Cathy. 

Her company, 700 Rivers, currently employs 70 women who have escaped human trafficking.  According to Cathy, there are more than 140,000 women in Bangladesh that have been sold into sex work with almost 90% of these women being sold to brothels against their will at a young age.  Often times when women escape, they have no formal education or skills.  Most are even rejected by their families, leaving them no option but to return to the very brothels they escaped from. Cathy employs these vulnerable women, and provides a stable work environment with fair living wages so they are able to rebuild a life on their own terms.

700 Rivers Artisan Holding Soap featured on WOMANBOSS
Photo of Bangladeshi artisan holding the soap she hand-made  

With the pandemic, travel restrictions and social distancing laws, many people are out of work in Bangladesh, as in everywhere else. Most of the population needs to work daily in order to feed their families, so any disruption can be extremely detrimental. Cathy responded to the pandemic instantly.  She set out to ensure that all of the artisans in Bangladesh could work from their homes in order to stay safe and take care of their families. The decision not only saved lives, but allowed her employees to continue to feed their families and pay their monthly expenses – a privilege not many in the area have.  

Worse yet, after weeks of social distancing and dealing with COVID-19 conditions, Bangladesh suffered a devastating cyclone that ripped through its coast.  Many were left displaced, and ended up in refugee camps, shelters and children’s orphanages that all have become severely overcrowded.  With an influx of people forced to relocate, there has been an extreme need for personal protective equipment.  

Staying true to her mission, Cathy confirmed the safety and well-being of her staff and decided to make the hard choice of halting her lifestyle product production to switch the workforce to hand-sewing face-masks.  “700 Rivers is currently working on donating and distributing all the fabric masks to children's orphanages in Bangladesh and to the Rohingya refugees.”  

700 Rivers Mask Production featured on WOMANBOSS
Photo of Bangladeshi artisans producing masks for children’s orphanages and Rohingya refugees 

Being entrepreneurial means being action-oriented and those who are impactful also have an unlimited drive to initiate.  Adding to that, the mission-led ones act from a deep sense of purpose and a heightened awareness of the different situations going on around them. Struggles and hardships of others, near and far, can be depressing, but they are also powerful signals in the world calling for meaningful action.   

The mission statement of 700 Rivers is to create high-quality, eco-friendly products that employ women across the world who are guaranteed fair living wages for their work, a safe work environment, and are treated with dignity and respect.  Staying true to such a noble mission is no easy task even on a good day, let alone during a pandemic and a natural disaster hitting at the same time. 

To learn more about 700 Rivers, and to donate to help fund production of these specialized masks, click here

To shop 700 Rivers, click here

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