Last month a sewing graduation was held at Human and Hope Association. This wasn’t your run of the mill sewing graduation, however. It was the very first time that we had retained ALL the students from the beginning to the end of the 10-month program. Six students from start to finish. Not only this, it was the first time a male student had stayed for the entire program.
Established in 2013, the sewing program at Human and Hope Association in Siem Reap, Cambodia, aimed to address the lack of skills and education in our community that kept villagers in poverty. It was initially set up with a fundraiser for my birthday; $1,500 managed to get us five sewing machines, some chairs, a cabinet and sewing supplies for the first semester. The next step wasn’t so easy. We had to go out into the community and convince women that studying for four months was worth their time, and we also had to convince their husbands and parents, too.
Eventually we recruited enough students for a morning and afternoon class and the program started. It was a bumpy ride. We provide the students with a stipend of $15USD a month and three hours of sewing training, five days a week. We lost three of our students along the way; they were forced by their families to stop studying and work instead, as they were unable to see the benefit of studying for four months. They wanted money, and they wanted it immediately.
After four months, our first semester finished, and we had seven students graduate from the program. Although they were all offered the opportunity to take out microfinance loans so they could purchase sewing machines and set up small businesses at home, only two did. One of those ladies (a 17-year-old girl at the time), was also hired to be our sewing assistant. She remains working at Human and Hope Association today as a sewing teacher, empowering others to move out of poverty just as she did.
The next semester I was determined to improve the program. We were all new to it, but I knew how much potential this program had to move people out of poverty. We stopped the monetary stipend and instead began providing 1kg of rice each day for the students, to ensure their families were well-fed. We also initiated weekly life skills lessons, focusing on topics to address social issues such as hygiene, domestic violence and business skills.
Then I came across a lady in the program named Saney. She had found out about the program through her neighbor who had graduated in our first semester. Saney’s husband initially didn’t want her to study, however with persistence, he gave her permission. We hired Saney to be a seamstress in a trial of our sewing business. She made shoulder bags, elephants and make up bands, which were put into shops around Siem Reap and sent to Australia to gauge interest. Saney’s quality was so great that we hired her to be our seamstress. But I didn’t want it to stop there. I realized that there would be more motivated, determined students like Saney, and our four month sewing program wasn’t enough. So we added on an extra semester, teaching further sewing skills such as tailored shirts and homewares. But that wasn’t enough. Towards the end of the extra semester, I was seeing that Saney and some of the students were developing successful businesses at their homes, and I wanted to ensure they had a competitive advantage in the market. So we added one more semester, an ‘expert’ semester, teaching the students how to make traditional and elaborate ceremony dresses. And then, that was it. They graduated.
Saney now has a successful business at her home, and her customer base has increased so much that she recently resigned as our seamstress, giving the opportunity to another student, Sangorb. Our last assessment has placed Saney almost out of the poverty bracket. She says, “My husband respects me now and often comments that I can earn much more money than him. My future is much brighter because of HHA.”
Since Saney graduated, we have continued to develop the sewing program. Our students continue to receive a stipend for studying, however it has changed. Three days a week they receive 1kg of rice daily and two days a week they receive vegetables. These vegetables are grown in our student farm, with our sewing students tending to the garden daily, learning about chemical-free farming and having direct input about how to manage the farm.
After studying in the program for three months our students have the opportunity to take out a microfinance loan with us. They purchase a machine to practice their lessons at home and begin fixing and making clothes for their neighbours. They begin repayments six months after first receiving the machine so we can ensure they are confident in their ability and are not pressured to pay back their loans straight away.
Upon graduating, armed with a diverse set of skills, our students seek employment in sewing shops, run sewing businesses from their homes or are hired by us to make products. We continue to provide workshops and refresher lessons for them every month for five months after they graduate. Our handicrafts, such as toys, homewares and accessories are made from traditional Khmer fabric and are sold around Siem Reap and in Australia through Human and Hope Association Incorporated. We also make wholesale orders for businesses, with the profits are used to support the operations of Human and Hope Association.
Our sewing program is so much more than just teaching women how to sew; it increases their safety and security and ensures they become good role models for other women and girls in our community. Take for example, Sangorb, a current sewing student who was hired to replace Saney as our seamstress. Sangorb only studied until grade two as her parents forced her to stop studying so she could raise cows. At the age of 13 she began working as a builder and in her free time collected rattan to make baskets.
When she was 20, Sangorb had an arranged marriage and soon after, had a child. Sangorb stayed at home, looking after her child, doing housework and growing vegetables. One day, when conducting community outreach, our team at Human and Hope Association met Sangorb and told her about the sewing program. Although she was interested, she had an ongoing bad rash which was going to prevent her from studying. Our staff told her about an NGO that provided free health care service, and as a result her rash was cured and she was able to study with us.
After studying for three months, Sangorb took out a microfinance loan and purchased a sewing machine. She was hired to be our seamstress, and as a result is earning a stable income from us in addition to fixing and making clothes for her neighbours. Sangorb says, “I never imagined that I could do good job with my sewing skill because I cannot write and read Khmer at all. However, now I am a seamstress and earning money. My husband is also happy to see that I can earn an income and now we don’t have as many arguments as before.”
In addition to developing the program to suit the needs of our students over the past few years, the main reason we were so successful this year is because we have created a stricter contract for the students. This contract states that if they leave the program before they graduate, they must repay 50% of the costs. Of course, we don’t want any money from the students, however it has encouraged villagers to think seriously before signing up to the program, and ensured their families were supportive of them taking the time out to study. It worked!
Within three years of graduating from our sewing program, we expect our students’ standard of living to increase. We have already seen this with some of our graduated sewing students making improvements to their existing houses, moving out from their extended families or building more stable houses.
It costs $90AUD a month to provide sewing training to a marginalized woman in Cambodia. Become a Sewing Champion today and change a life.
Photos courtesy of Seyla Thoeun, Human and Hope Association