I first met Chomrong in 2014. She was a student in the third intake of the sewing program at Human and Hope Association, a grassroots NGO in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Our team recruited her by venturing into her village four kilometres away from our community centre. Seeing the condition of her house, made from old wood, bamboo and palm leaves, they approached her to see if she wanted to study sewing.
It turned out that Chomrong had dreamt of learning sewing, but never had the financial means to do so. Despite being very intelligent, Chomrong had to drop out of school in grade eight. Her family couldn’t afford for her to study in school; they needed her to be earning an income.
Chomrong spent the next few years working as a builder, earning 88 cents a day. She met her husband, and they moved to Siem Reap. They had three children, which put a huge financial strain on their already limited income. Chomrong and her family lived from day to day, not knowing whether they would have enough food to survive. Their children often fell ill, pushing them further and further into poverty.
When Chomrong began studying in our sewing program, her motivation to learn shone through.
She borrowed funds through our microfinance program to set up a small sewing business at her home, and was hired to be our seamstress, making handicrafts for sale in Cambodia and Australia.
Chomrong originally set up her sewing machine in her unstable house. Once she had earnt some profit, she built a small wooden structure alongside her house and turned it into a profitable business. Once Chomrong repaid her first loan, she then borrowed funds for a second machine, expanding her business.
As we are very passionate about a holistic approach to development, by empowering whole families out of poverty, we placed Chomrong’s daughter into our English program at Human and Hope Association.
Her son joined our preschool class, and upon graduation was enrolled in public school. He continues to attend Khmer, English and art class to this day.
Chomrong was a victim of domestic violence.
Her husband would physically and verbally abuse her. This is unfortunately all too common, as a popular proverb in Cambodia is “Men are gold and women are fabric.” Until 2007, this was taught in public schools in Cambodia. To address this, we provide workshops in our sewing program, focusing on their rights in marriages. Chomrong’s husband has now stopped abusing her as a result of these workshops and Chomrong having the ability to earn an income, reducing financial pressure.
Before I departed Human and Hope Association so it could be entirely Khmer operated, a sewing teacher position became available at the organisation. I knew that Chomrong was the perfect person for the role. We approached her to undertake an interview, and she said no. There were too many things holding her back.
After a couple of weeks, she came to us and said she wanted to apply.
Her husband had helped her find solutions to her issues, and she was ready to take this next step in her life. Chomrong is now a sewing teacher in the afternoons, empowering women like herself with sewing, life and business skills. She continues to make handicrafts for us in the mornings at her home, enabling her to spend time with her children.
Whenever I feel overwhelmed about my problems, I think about Chomrong. She has taught me about resilience and persistence, and I have no doubt she will serve as a positive role model in her community for years to come.
Chomrong and her husband are almost finished building a brick house on their land, which will replace the unsteady structure they have lived in for many years. Now a much happier family, they can provide their children a future they never thought was possible. And it all started with a needle and thread.