As her family could no longer support her study, Chor Vichara did just as many underprivileged Cambodian women would do – she abandoned school to take a job at a garment factory. She earned about US$70 a month and was able to send some money home to support her family. After three years, however, she called it quits.
“The work at the factory gave me no hope. I could learn nothing from it to build a good future. That’s why I came here,” said Vichara, 22, from Boseth district of Kampong Speu province, 40 kilometres from Phnom Penh.
With her feet working the wooden pedals of a loom and her hands dicing the reel back and forth, Vichara is learning to weave a better future at the Women Development Centre in the province. She is one of 20 women who are currently receiving training in dyeing, weaving and sewing - skills which they can use to pursue a more sustainable livelihood.
UNDP Cambodia, through Partnership for Gender Equity (PGE) project of Ministry of Women’s Affairs, has been supporting the centre since 2007. To date, 95 women from the province have benefitted from the project’s support to the centre. Its mission is to provide women with skills so that they can be economically empowered, encourage them to take more substantial role in the family, and offer them a choice to work closer to home instead of migrating faraway or to another country to make a living.
“Women’s empowerment is possible only when women take part in earning income to support their family. And they can do that when they have their own skills. This is what the centre is aiming to achieve – to provide them the skills that they can use to make money and they can do it at home,” Ms. Chorn Yoeurn, the centre’s director, said.
Chor Vichara can be counted in the pool of many disadvantaged women in Cambodia. She is the oldest of three children in her family. Her father is a teacher at a local school and her mother is a homemaker. In 2007, Chor Vichera decided to drop out of 10th Grade to relieve the financial burden on her family so that her two brothers could pursue their studies. Then she went to work at a garment factory in Phnom Penh, 40 kilometres away from home.
“There I was assigned to sew shirt sleeves. That was it,” she said recalling the routine she had for three years.
She quit the job early this year. In March, she signed up for the training at WDC after learning about the skills it offered. She was among the 35 women who then received a six-month basic training in weaving and sewing. Twenty of them, including Chor Vichara, were selected for a three-month extended training to upgrade their skills and prepare them to become trainers in the field in the future.
The new courses included colour mixing using natural dyes and chemical dyes, and selecting and organizing colors for weaving groups. In the sewing class, the women were taught more complex designs of dresses and other accessories made with cloth such as handbags, tableware, and pillow cases.
“This upgraded course is good in a way that it teaches them to be more patient, to acquire new skills and to think more about customers’ needs,” the centre’s director, Ms. Chorn Yoeurn, said.
“They have been working even harder than they are required to because they hope that they can use the skills for their future,” she said.
Weaving kramas, traditional Khmer scarves, leads the second potential revenue stream for people living in the province after palm sugar. It is a tradition that was once dominated by the use of cotton thread and natural dye. But over time, the cotton has been replaced with colored nylon that is now easily available at a cheaper price.
Apart from training women to have a foundation for a better life, the centre also tries to preserve old traditions too. It teaches students to use tree bark cooked on a gas stove to make natural colour. Then cotton thread is dyed and hung to dry out before ending up on the loom.
Ms. Chorn Yoeurn, the centre’s director, said the use of the old tradition helps increase the value of the products to target a higher-end market – especially foreign tourists.
For 56-year-old Pok Sakhan, the oldest of the 20 students, it was never too late to learn the old tricks.
“My parents always weaved cotton thread dyed in natural colour but I never did. Now I am learning this skill that I hope I can pass on to my children too,” she said.
Like her classmate Chor Vichera, 29-year-old Kim Khemara spent five years working at a garment factory. And she said she didn’t learn anything more than the parts of clothes she was required to sew. Now she has learnt to sew dresses and hand bags from her own design.
“Now I posess a real skill to earn my living in the future,” she said while working, her hand trying to stabilize a handbag as the electrical sewing machine punched its needle through it.
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