It began as an assignment for a local magazine and ended up launching a journey: a collaboration between me and social entrepreneur Chantha Nguon to write her life story, thanks to the big idea and huge support of Ann Walling, a local Episcopal priest, author, and philanthropist.
This article originally appeared in HER Nashville magazine.
“In much of the world, discrimination is lethal,” journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn write in Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. In Africa and Asia, millions of daughters go without medical treatment that’s given to valued sons; genital cutting, honor killing, mass rape, and maternal mortality destroy countless female lives; and sexual slavery claims more victims every year than the 18th- and 19th-century slave trade did.
There’s hope. Development experts believe that educating women and girls is the cornerstone of fighting poverty in the third world. The “Girl Effect” is simple: Help women achieve economic independence, and they re-invest in their families’ education and in their communities.
Chantha Nguon has seen the devastating effects of poverty, discrimination, and sex trafficking—and the transformational power of the “Girl Effect”—in poor, isolated parts of Southeast Asia. She worked as a nurse in a Thai refugee camp and directed a mobile health care project for Doctors Without Borders. “I was working with sex workers,” she says. “And they are dying in the hospital with HIV/AIDS … disease that can be prevented.” In 2001, Chantha and her husband opened a hospice facility for HIV patients, just as the Cambodian government launched a women’s empowerment program called “Women Are Diamonds.”
“What it the point, ‘diamond’?” she scoffs, with the candid humor of a pragmatist. Who cared about ad campaigns, when women were dying of AIDS, and girls—victims of a society that valued females only as procreators and objects of pleasure—were forced into the sex trade or into marriages at 12 or 13? “The culture of Cambodian men is that man is gold and woman is a skirt,” she explains. She vowed to help women become diamonds, in a practical sense.
Today, in Stung Treng Province, vivid blues and reds swirl together at the confluence of the Mekong and Sekong Rivers, and riotous greens tangle along the banks. Tiny Sre Po village also courses with color—shimmering silken threads flow from hand-built looms, clacking into life as women at the Stung Treng Women’s Development Center (SWDC) demonstrate what real empowerment looks like.
Shimmering silken threads flow from hand-built looms, clacking into life as women at the Stung Treng Women’s Development Center (SWDC) demonstrate what real empowerment looks like.
Chantha conceived of teaching women the traditional silk-weaving craft as a sly incentive to keep them in literacy training. Unable to see how reading would put food on the table, women kept dropping out of classes. “‘Teach me to fish’?” quips Chantha. “They don’t have time to wait.” But women clamored to learn to weave.
By 2008, Chantha’s small NGO (non-governmental organization) was on the way to becoming a self-sustaining enterprise—sales of Mekong Blue silk scarves helped fund a kindergarten, literacy classes, a silkworm farm, and basic medical education. But a global recession loomed, and orders dried up.
Enter Ann Walling, a retired Episcopal priest in Nashville. She’d inherited a legacy of service from her mother, the founder of the Allen Foundation, which had seeded Chantha’s venture six years before. Walling realized that without a major marketing push, Chantha’s looms would fall silent, and her employees would return to the rice fields … or worse. Walling had to learn social entrepreneurship—and fast. “In seminary they didn’t teach me about marketing,” she says. “The learning curve has been straight up.”
What Walling does know is the art of understated leadership. She called on the congregation at St. David’s Episcopal Church for help. Walling and her volunteers set up the BlueSilk.org website, the first U.S. distributor for Mekong Blue products. And in 2009, Walling called Chantha to place the first order—for 1,200 scarves. “I was screaming,” smiles Chantha. She told her employees, “No one go anywhere. I need you here.”
Although that initial order kept the looms running, Walling quickly realized that a nonprofit relying on nearly constant volunteer labor wasn’t sustainable. Walling says she and Chantha had to re-imagine Mekong Blue/SWDC as a viable business: “I’ve heard (Chantha) say, ‘The problem with being an NGO is you’re dependent on charity, and you’re a beggar.’ So to change that, you go into a business whose purpose is to give a living wage to the workers and to maintain the social programs of the business.”
Today, the SWDC’s hand-built looms support Chantha’s education an health programs and employ more than 80 people in a remote corner of northeastern Cambodia. They even pay a few modest salaries Stateside.
Weavers now earn between $75—$200 a month, which is quite a respectable sum. And those salaries give women the power to make decisions about their lives that would have been imposed on them when they had nothing. Chantha says her employees are delaying marriage and choosing to have fewer children. And their increased “value” as wage-earners makes them—and their daughters—far less vulnerable to being forced into prostitution.
“Now they are diamond,” Chantha says. “They make themselves diamond.”