For two decades of war and exile, a Cambodian refugee waited for her life to begin.
Now she’s home, helping women in a remote village learn to weave shimmering silk scarves and independent lives.
STUNG TRENG, CAMBODIA — “They are sick of chicken soup,” Chantha Nguon grins, as around 40 chattering women sit down to a free lunch.
After fleeing war-ravaged Cambodia as a child, enduring two lean decades as a refugee in Vietnam and in Thai refugee camps, then returning to a country laid waste, it’s hard for Nguon to look a gift chicken in the mouth.
With macabre humor, she recalls the inferior birds available in the camps: “We called it ‘chicken that stepped on a mine,'” — so stingy of flesh, she laughs, meat seemed to have separated from bone…explosively.
She’s glad for the soup, however repetitive.
The fact that these few dozen village women are in a position to gripe about the fare fills Nguon with quiet satisfaction. “It’s very vulnerable to be a woman in Cambodia,” she says. Few attend school; most face poverty, early marriage, drudgery in a distant garment factory, or worse — in the sex trade. Daily chicken soup, for many, is a dream.
At the Stung Treng Women’s Development Center, a small social enterprise she and her husband built in a remote patch of jungle in northeastern Cambodia 14 years ago, an open-air kindergarten teems with laughing children; the soup-cooks peel root vegetables in an outdoor kitchen. And after lunch, murmuring women amble back to their hand-built looms and resume threading together shimmering silk strands, producing gem-hued scarves sold worldwide as “Mekong Blue.”
At SWDC, employees take literacy and health classes and make a living wage. They tend to delay marriage, have fewer children than their peers, and even build their own houses, Nguon says, her eyes shining with pride. They’re a little less vulnerable, she explains, a little more free.
“I love this work,” Nguon smiles. “Now I am free.”
*note: You can order Mekong Blue scarves at Thistle Farms’ host site for social enterprise goods, the Shared Trade Online Marketplace.
See also: Mekong Blue on Facebook
CHANTHA NGUON: We aim to support women who never been to school—illiterate—and who have no knowledge about health and hygiene and no access to health care. To help them to have a bit of literacy and a skill. To be able to get a job. To earn an income. To improve their own life and support their children.
It’s very vulnerable to be a woman in Cambodia—60% of women are illiterate. Therefore, with the culture of Cambodia has stated that man is gold and woman is a skirt. It means that woman doesn’t need an education and she has to be dependent on the husband for her whole life.
If she can get a job and earn her own income, she become independent, and she has her freedom to choose to get married at whatever age she choose and how many children she wanted to. The women came to our center ten years ago, the society called her a farmer. A woman. Which means she has no value, she has no voice, she has no rights to raise her voice in her own community.
But today we can see those women, she get married at 28 years old, 30 years old, which is very unusual in Cambodia. Normally, a woman is a farmer, she want to get married when she 18 and the latest is 20. If she don’t get married at 20 years old, she worries about her future. There will be no man to marry her no man to support her.
But in our center, the women normally get married from 25 year old, 28 year old, and they have maximum two children. They say, “I have to work. I cannot stay home to take care of one child after another like my mother.”
So that’s how her status has been upgraded in the society, and other women in the society wanted to be like her. And with the income that she have she wanted to send her children to English class. That’s something we—big achievement for us.
Nuon Srey Nim is one of the hardest story we have. Each women in this center they have their own story. They all have hard life, but Nuon Srey Nim is special. She’s my favorite because she has such a hard life.
NUON SREY NIM: I’m from a poor family. Our income was not enough to support a family. Sometimes we’d have enough to eat in the morning, but not enough for the evening meal.
CHANTHA NGUON: Her parents die when she was 15 and her mother die two years later. She came with us when she was 18, and she was supporting 3 younger siblings. So she came to us to join the literacy class for one year, and then she got the vocational training, the weaving training, and now she’s one of the best.
NUON SREY NIM: I’m very happy to work here. Before, I was illiterate. But at the center, I learned to read and write a little and also add and subtract. And I’ve learned so many new skills. I know how to mix colors, dye the silk, and lots more.
Now I live independently. Now I can support myself and my younger brothers. I pay for their school, clothes, and food. And I can support myself as well.
CHANTHA NGUON: I love this work. I love to see the woman like Nuon Srey Nim—10 years ago she was living a no-lights life. And two years after she join the center she start to receive a salary. Which it will never happen to her life if she is alone. She will have to work on the rice field. She will have to go along the river and catch fish to support her family.
But now she comes to work, and every morning she leaves her house and she wear very clean clothes and she goes home after 5:00. Like everyone in the world, she have a job.
I love to see the women I work with to change their life that way.
Special thanks to Chantha Nguon and Nuon Srey Nim for sharing their stories, and to Simon Gugala for production and music excellence.