Vocational skills and social training open new windows of opportunity for women in Siem Reap.
Tep Roeung is no stranger to the concept of training. Back in 1997, as a shy young woman, she received an invitation from the Siem Reap Provincial Department of Women's Affairs to attend a seminar on gender equality. It was a subject she had heard about in the media, but with no instructions on how to apply for the course, she had little choice but to let the opportunity pass her by. Two years later her husband abandoned the family home in Plong Village, in Angkor Thom district's Leang Dai commune, leaving Roeung to care for her three children and elderly mother alone.
"After all sorts of vocational and social training from the Women's Development Center and Artisans d'Angkor, I'm now confident I can make a living using my skills because I can earn between US$150 and $225 every month weaving silk products."
-- Tep Roeung, weaver
Plunged into poverty, Roeung worked on a small rice field in an attempt to support her family, but soon slid into debt. A potential break came in 2008, when Roeung's mother signed her up for a weaving initiative at the Siem Reap Women's Development Center (WDC), newly established by the Ministry of Women's Affairs with support from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) under a grant from the Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction. With a focus on both life and livelihood skills, the courses reawakened Roeung's interest in the concept of ang ach (economic and social empowerment). Lasting three months, it was the longest course she had completed since leaving school after the fourth grade. The WDC later invited Roeung to train others in weaving, but when the project came to a close in 2010, once again so did her income.
On her own initiative
Undeterred, Roeung used the money she had saved to buy a locally made loom and, along with a few of her fellow graduates, launched a small weaving business making silk scarves. But running a small business brings its own challenges, in this case design, quality control and market information. Lacking the necessary knowledge or professional support to address such issues, Roeung abandoned her new-found vocational skills and turned back to poorly paid, irregular construction work.
In 2011, opportunity came knocking once more. The WDC had joined forces with the German Agency for International Cooperation, GIZ, and Roeung was able to participate in more training: this time in the area of product design, along with dyeing and coloring techniques.
A year later, in 2012, she was able to secure a position at Artisans d'Angkor, a very successful Siem Reap based social enterprise, which offered on-the-job training and placed her in a production facility close to her village. The timing was fortuitous, and within a few months, Roeung - now 34 - was selected by Artisans, in a new collaboration with the WDC, to become a trainer herself, developing new Ikat designs and knotting techniques using raw silk.
The collaboration of Artisans and the WDC came about with the help of a small grant from the ADB's Gender and Development Cooperation Fund in 2012 to support the WDC in creating favorable conditions for entering into a public-private partnership (PPP) with a local business. The WDC selected Artisans d'Angkor because of their shared vision of economic empowerment for local women through the development of traditional handicrafts. The partnership would enable both parties to benefit from each other's assets and strengths. It is anticipated that the WDC and Artisans will enter into a cooperative agreement in the near future, thereby making the WDC more sustainable and securing markets and livelihoods for local weavers and other producers.
Today, the twin concepts of economic and social empowerment are no longer abstract ideas for Roeung. Economically, her income is stable. She is debt-free and has managed to put away nearly $500 in savings. With her savings, Roeung would like to install solar panels at home so that she can weave at night in order to further boost her income. Socially, where once she was fearful of facing the community after her husband abandoned her, Roeung is now an active member of an all-women producers' group and is always prepared to help other women in her village improve their vocational skills or even start their own businesses.
"No one or two vocational training courses can change your life immediately," she says.
We need the combination that I have had - or even more than I have had - for all women. Training, both vocational and social, is vital in order for women in rural areas to be able to change their lives. I can think of no better way to empower women. Local training reaches poor women who could not otherwise afford education."