Ask any surfer and they will all tell you the same thing: surfing is not a sport, it’s a lifestyle. Even though I grew up in the middle of Belgium, far away from the ocean, it’s the lifestyle that always attracted me.

A free ride from nature

I was 14 years old when I had my first surfing experience in Spain. I still remember the first time my feet touched the board and I rode my first wave. Being pushed by the ocean towards the beach felt like flying –  a free ride from nature. I had never felt anything like that before and ever since that moment, I was hooked. Chasing waves became the most important thing in my life.

One-way ticket to India

Growing up, I was always interested in nature and science, which is why I later studied biochemical engineering. However, when I graduated, the idea of getting a job in that field didn’t appeal to me. I couldn’t stop dreaming about exploring the world and living in places where I could walk barefoot and surf every day. So instead of finding a job, I packed my backpack and booked a one-way ticket to India. Together with Jonas, my partner at the time, I left Belgium to travel the world, surf as much as possible and figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

exploring the world and living in places where I could walk barefoot and surf every day

 

Something that changed my life forever

In India, we spent a month with Samugam, a grassroots organisation where Jonas had worked as a volunteer a couple of years before. For more than 15 years, Samugam has provided a home and education to orphans and street children in Pondicherry. In addition, they run various projects to help people living in extreme poverty to become more economically independent. Amongst these projects, there was one, in particular, that would change my life forever: The Sewing the Seeds Project.

Feeling guilty won’t help anybody

The Sewing The Seeds Project empowers disadvantaged women by teaching them applicable skills. In their tailoring centre, single mothers, widows, and ex-sex workers receive free sewing and vocational training that they can then use to find work. Visiting the centre and getting to know the women was incredibly eye-opening for me, to say the least.

In India, I learned that gender discrimination continues to be an enormous problem within Indian society. Therefore, the empowerment of marginalized women through education and the creation of vocational opportunities are essential to the sustained growth of India – or any society for that matter. Traditional patriarchal norms have degraded women to a secondary status within the household and workplace. This drastically affects women’s health, financial status, education, and political involvement. I was shocked to learn all of this and it made me realise how privileged I had been my whole life.

 

All this time, I had been concerned about having the freedom to design my life so I could surf every day. But these women had no freedom of choice when it came to their lives. Realising this made me feel guilty for taking for granted all the opportunities I was given throughout my life.

Nevertheless, I quickly realised that feeling guilty wouldn’t help anybody, and instead, I would try to help these women. The project was already very successful by providing a safe space where the women build confidence and could expand their horizons. But it didn’t always result in them actually finding a job and generating an income to support their family. That’s how we came up with an idea to create jobs in the tailoring centre. And this idea became a social enterprise: Fair and Square

 

What I learned through the years

Fast forward four years. Today, we provide a dignified workspace for about fifteen women by creating reusable, organic cotton bags for zero-waste shops in Europe. The women receive a fair wage for their work and at the same time we are making a sustainable alternative for one of the main polluters of our oceans: single-use plastic bags. Every year, I spend a couple of months in India to help develop the project alongside Samugam. The rest of the year, I manage it remotely from a place where I can walk barefoot and surf every day.

Surfing has taught me to respect and care for nature. Chasing this lifestyle made me realise how privileged I am and that I want to help women who weren’t provided with the same opportunities as me.

Together with these women, I now work to protect what is most near and dear to me: the ocean.

It goes without saying that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done when it comes to women empowerment, pollution and climate change, but I believe together we can make a difference. And I hope you believe this too and that you decide to make an effort to care for and support our planet. Because it’s the only one with waves.

Follow @lienuten and @fairandsquarebe on instagram!