Most people spend their 50th birthdays at a restaurant or social gathering with family and loved ones, but Rachel O’Neill isn’t most people. For her big five-oh in 2005, she and her husband traveled to Africa to experience the safari, and along the way she also visited a women’s group in Uganda. Touched by the African women’s “eagerness to learn and listen and be a part of things,” she knew she would return. Sure enough, 18 months later, she joined a mission group to Malawi.
She says of her second trip, “That’s when I noticed that the women did absolutely all of the work — they tilled the fields, they harvest, they gather the wood for kindling to cook outside. Everything with a baby on their back.” While observing the day-to-day operations within the village, O’Neill saw something else that shocked her: when it was time to eat, the women went to the back of the line, behind the men. “I couldn’t believe that after everything they do, they’re treated like they’re not as valuable.”
Then and there, O’Neill came up with the idea of sewing dresses for women to help “honor” them. She and other members of the mission group made a few for a village, just to see if the simple but fashionable clothing would catch on. It did. “People just started responding like crazy,” O’Neill says.
What began as one woman’s small-scale effort became the global nonprofit that is now Little Dresses for Africa. O’Neill, 64, runs the business from its headquarters in Rockwood, Michigan, but has also set up facilities in eight other countries. Through postal mail and in-person trips, the non-profit distributes dresses to 87 countries, half of which are in Africa and the rest scattered around the world in Honduras, Haiti, Guatemala and more. O’Neill isn’t sure how many volunteers currently participate in the non-profit but estimates the number to be well over 23,000. That’s how many groups she has listed in the online database, and some groups represent as many as 30 people.
So far, her business has collectively distributed over 8 million dresses. While she was originally inspired to make dresses for women, she and volunteers now sew them for young girls. “I mean, literally, we send thousands of dresses every week,” O’Neill says, speaking of her own facility in Michigan. “The other ladies help me size them and box them up and get them ready for shipping and it’s just a real community effort.”
Stitching For Change
Since its conception in 2008, O’Neill wanted Little Dresses for Africa to be as inclusive as possible. She shamelessly admits “I can’t sew,” so she and the volunteers make dresses out of old pillowcases. The non-profit’s website lists step-by-step instructions on how to make and ship pillow case dresses in four different sizes. Committed to an eco-friendly and “anybody can do it” philosophy, O’Neill has still set a high bar for her business’ products.
She says, “We try to make sure the fabric is excellent, or we don’t really want them involved. The whole point is to honor these little girls, and we want to plant in the hearts of these little girls that they’re worthy.”
Not just a self-esteem booster, the dresses have made more of a far-reaching impact than O’Neill predicted. “We hear it over and over again from the villages,” she says. Apparently, the dresses have become a source of protection for the girls “on long walks where they could be abducted, raped, or otherwise taken advantage of.” She explains that aggressors are less likely to target girls clad in new dresses because “it looks like someone’s watching over them.”
Along with dressmaking, the non-profit is committed to improving the quality of life in impoverished areas. As part of its humanitarian program, the business aims to provide aid to African villages in three critical areas: clean water, education and community. It’s already built two schools, two warehouses, a girls dormitory, a sewing center, and 21 water wells with 19 more coming this year.
“The business is evolving, and it’s not just dresses anymore,” O’Neill says. “The dresses are just an avenue into these communities to show our love, to keep girls alive and in school.”
Power to the Women
O’Neill and Little Dresses for Africa also came out with a “Dignity Program” that combats period stigma with sani-panties — absorbent, washable pads that adolescent girls can wear during their menstrual cycles. Before, “we would have these girls just literally sitting around because they had no way to manage their periods.” Or worse, some girls would use whatever resources they had on hand — including half-cut potatoes — to stop their flow, but it also increased their risk of infection.
Sani-panties aren’t just taking the shame out of periods — they’re also giving adolescent girls a shot at education. According to O’Neill, 60 percent of girls drop out of school around age 11 and 12, and the timing is no coincidence. She says, “These girls are often married the minute they get their period because they’re more valuable as a wife than as a student.”
Her non-profit primarily focuses on uplifting women in African communities, but it does include a complement to dresses for girls: “Britches for Boys.” Despite her progressive stance on gender equality, she brushes aside any talk of feminism or politics related to her business. Instead, she says simply wants to raise awareness in African communities to support and nurture their women.
O’Neill comes from a family of six girls, and one of the schools in Malawi is named after her mother, an educator. The school and many other developing projects stand as testaments to her belief that “when you educate a woman, you educate an entire village.”
Regarding long-term plans for her non-profit, O’Neill frankly says, “I don’t know. I don’t say that with any embarrassment, because I feel like every part of this is unfolded. When I started, I didn’t know how to ship a container, I didn’t know how to mail a box of dresses, I didn’t know how to build a school.” Now, even with 14 years in the business, there’s no limit for what O’Neill can do. “It feels like I’m learning on the job, and I am prepared for whatever comes next.”