We are incredibly lucky to work alongside such powerhouse women in both Cambodia and Nepal (well maybe it’s not so much luck given that we built our organisation around working with them!) Earlier this year we profiled Women’s Foundation Nepal President Renu Sharma (ICYMI: you can see it here), so now it’s time you learned a little more about the woman behind our other grassroots partner: Stung Treng Women’s Development Centre in Cambodia – Chantha Nguon.
I had the pleasure of spending some time with Chantha in early 2014. Her indomitable spirit, resilience and unparalleled work ethic are obvious from the moment you first meet her. This is a woman who has spent a decade of her life in a refugee camp during the Pol Pot regime, dedicated her life to supporting some of Cambodia’s most vulnerable women, established and run several non-profit organisations and businesses all the while raising two gorgeous children!
To give you a bit of background, Stung Treng Women’s Development Centre is made up of two distinct but inter-related arms: Mekong Blue (the trading arm that sells high quality silk products made by women at the Centre) and a holistic social development program for women and their children that is part-funded by the profits from Mekong Blue (and international donors). The organisation was founded in 2001 by Chantha and her partner Kim Dara Chan, who’s currently the General Manager.
Chantha’s strong leadership and commitment is one of the key drivers of the organisation’s long-lasting success. In a report on Rural Employment and Decent Work, the International Labour Organisation cites Chantha’s ability to set an example as an empowered, working woman has been crucially important to convincing women in Stung Treng that the vulnerabilities they face can be overcome.
It’s time to see for yourself…
We asked Chantha a few questions to give you a sense of not just why we choose to partner with grassroots women’s organisations, but why we choose to partner with Stung Treng Women’s Development Centre in Cambodia.
Something I didn’t know before this interview: Chantha started off working with sex workers dying of HIV/AIDS for Medecins Sans Frontieres.
My biggest takeaway from the interview: perseverance is the key to achieving any kind of meaningful change.
Carmen: How did you come to establish Stung Treng Women’s Development Centre (SWDC)?
Chantha: My partner and I were working with Medecins Sans Frontiere (MSF) or Doctors Without Borders from 1995-2000. One of my tasks with MSF was providing social support to the dying sex workers. This has built in me a willingness to continue to help vulnerable women. That was how we started SWDC.
Carmen: What is it about the organisation that you are most proud of?
Chantha: I knew what the women needed to be able to change their lives. They need a basic education to learn a skill, but they urgently need daily food. We provide daily food to enable them to stay one year in literacy class [that is] required for the six month weaving training course. The weaving skill has changed their lives from a “piece of white cloth” into diamond.
Carmen: What is the hardest part of your job?
Chantha: So many challenges happen all the time – I couldn’t define which one is the hardest. The hardest thing is I have to stay committed and hopeful to the project while what I wanted was to give up.
Carmen: We’re so glad that you didn’t give up! I imagine that there are particular women’s stories that have stayed with you and continue to motivate you to keep doing what you do. Would you mind sharing a couple for our supporters?
Chantha: Of course!
Nuon Srey Nim is now an independent woman who owns three cows, a vegetable farm, a rice field and lives happily in her new life. She came to us in 2002 when she was 17, both [of] her parents died leaving her [to look after] her three younger siblings. She was an Ikat pattern maker, saving up to buy cows, land and has raised her three younger siblings to be a helpful people. She left SWDC in 2014 to live an independent life. Nuon Srey Nim was the most vulnerable girl we had at SWDC, her story has moved me the most because I had [to] pay more attention to help her than any others. Her new life is from her decade of hard work at SWDC.
Nak Sombay also joined SWDC in 2002 when she was 18. In 2010, she was promoted to be the head of dye team. The English teacher at SWDC asked her ‘do you have a boyfriend and do you want to marry him’, her answer was “I used to have a boyfriend but no, I won’t marry him because he’s not good enough for me”. In rural areas of Cambodia, you can [usually] only find girls who say “I need to get married before I am 19 years old, otherwise, it will be too late and I will become an old maid”. I admire her independence.
Lim Leang Imm: joined SWDC in 2002, she was one of the best weavers before she left the Centre to get married in 2007. She followed traditional culture, stayed home, had children and took care of the family. Her husband spent most of his income on drinking, leaving a very small amount for her to take care of them and their newborn son. After two years living that life, she decided to leave her husband and come back to SWDC, she was pregnant with her second child but she said “I can’t live a life without my own income, I can raise my two children by myself by working at SWDC”. She’s now the manager of weaving unit, quality control & sales.
Carmen: Why do you think that you are so passionate about women’s education and economic empowerment?
Chantha: From what I have been through during and after wars, I was able to stay out of prostitution, I was able to get over all the hardships, I came to realise I was able to survive because I had an education! Seeing women who suffer from domestic violence, I again realise that perhaps it didn’t happen to me because I am financially independent, I have an income to help build up our children’s future together with my husband. Most of all, I have my husband’s respect. Besides, women are the best forces when we come together to help each other.
Carmen: We like to call them ‘fierce lady friendships’ at The Global Women’s Project – the best kind! What do you see as the main barriers to women accessing education in Cambodia?
Chantha: Cambodian culture gives more value to boys than girls. The norm of “man is gold, woman is a piece of white cloth” [is] still a strong belief in the rural areas of Cambodia. Poverty is another factor which causes the family to ignore their children’s education. They need food daily and education takes time to achieve. They need to send their children to work for daily food and have no time to wait until they finish school. The Cambodian norm has bound the girl into the responsibility to support their parents and their sibling, that’s why letting the daughter work at [an] early age as a maid or garment factory worker is very common.
Carmen: I would love to know what personal attributes you feel have helped you to overcome adversity in your life?
Chantha: Perseverance. I bend my head to face adversity, and then find the way to get over it. Bottom line is, overcoming challenges result in happiness.
Carmen: You inspire me and all of us at The Global Women’s Project – but I want to know who inspires you?
Chantha: My mother and my oldest sister who raised and taught me to be an honest and honourable person. I saw them work very hard to have enough food for us but at the same time they share our food to the poorer no matter how poor we are.
Carmen: Lastly, if you could make one change to women’s lives, what would it be and why?
Chantha: For them to become educated and financially independent because it is freedom. Freedom from dependency and vulnerabilities.
Carmen: Chantha, thank you so much for taking the time to share your infinite wisdom and experience with us at The Global Women’s Project. It is an honour to work alongside you and we look forward to many more years of working together!
To find out more about Stung Treng Women’s Development Centre or to order one of their beautiful scarves, please click here or visit their website – and be sure to check them out on Facebook and leave Chantha a message of solidarity.