I have a beautiful wooden bench that sits in the entry way to my back yard. It opens and I can hide things in it. It has housed boots, and crayons, miscellaneous paper, and when company comes at short notice I’ve been known to hide dishes and trinkets in it to appear tidy.

It has golden varnish and a sculpted back and I hope to keep it forever, not only because it has proven to be infinitely useful, but because the hands that put it together belong to a woman that I care about. She made my bench while taking a carpentry course for women offered by the Northwest Territories Status of Women Council.

I’m not sure when I first met this woman, I can’t remember a definitive moment that she entered my life. I do remember years ago sitting in Javaroma with a sketch pad, my pencils and a full warm black mug of coffee surveying the crowd for a subject that was both still and immersed in something enough that they may not notice me staring. She was sitting a few tables away with her son and she was familiar to me. I knew her then from the homeless shelter at Centre for Northern Families.

She was sitting at the table sculpting shiny, tiny glass beads and thread into lighter cases that she would sell to pay for her coffee and cigarettes, maybe even treats for herself and her son. She was still except for her hands that worked persistently at trapping the little beads with the end of a needle as they rolled within borders she had created on the table.

I know it isn’t the first time we met, but its a strong memory, probably because it was the first time that I spent a significant amount of time thinking about her. She had a shock of grey in her otherwise black hair that ran down one side of her downcast face. Even in concentration, she was smiling softly as her son chatted to her. She had warm brown eyes that were creased with age and high rounded eyebrows.

After I finished my sketch I showed it to her, and she smiled wide.

I knew that her life was difficult, and that she had faced horrors that I wish I could say I’d never dreamed of. Unfortunately though in the work that I do, I’ve had to hear many stories that have made me acutely aware of the violence and torturous experiences  that women in the North have faced, often from early childhood.

I remember passing her sometime later as I walked into the grocery store, she stopped me to say hello and ask for a cigarette. I gave her one and lit one for myself and asked her how she was doing. She beamed with pride and happiness as she told me that she had enrolled in the Status of Women’s Women in Trades Program and she was learning to be a carpenter. She said that she was really enjoying herself and talked about the projects they were working on. She said that once she finished the first course that she could enroll in the second one and that they would be learning to build small sheds. She said that she really hoped that she could learn how to build a small cabin for herself.

I remember looking at her beaming with pride. She was (and is) always a friendly woman. Normally fairly quiet and humble, and at the time it occurred to me that this was the most animated I’d seen her. She spoke with confidence, and had obviously spent a lot of time thinking about what she would do with her training in the future. She was proud that she had created big solid things in the program, that she had been given the chance to have an experience so outside of her regular experiences.

I remember standing outside of the grocery store and being envious of her. Thinking that I’d love to be able to learn the skills that she was learning, to have the doors open to well paid work where I could escape my office and be active and build.

After the course ended I ran into her at the Trade Show, she came over and told me excitedly that she had finished the course and that for her final project she had built a bench. She told me that it wasn’t even just a bend that you could sit on, but one with a lid that you could store things in and that she was selling it. She figured that she could get at least a hundred bucks for it. Her eyes were bright with excitement, her lighter cases usually sold for much less.

I gave her a hundred and fifty dollars for the bench, and it serves as more than just a storage or hiding space, it serves as a reminder of the potential people have when they’re given a chance and practical tools to substantially improve their existence.

The focus of this year’s Blog for International Women’s Day mirrors the theme of the 55th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women “Equal access to education, training and science and technology: Pathway to decent work for women.” Women throughout the world experience unique barriers in accessing decent work in non traditional fields. However when program providers and policy makers build bridges over those gender based barriers they are truly changing the world and changing peoples lives for the better.

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