Sitting in a tiny space with both hands busy controlling the point of her needle as her stitches shape the green fabric, Sok Nhei is happy to fulfill a customer’s order for 10 stuffed crocodiles.
Located on the third floor of an apartment building on Boeung Keng Kang II on the same block as the old Kirirom Theatre, the 56-year-old relies solely on her sewing business to support herself and her two daughters in a house where the roof leaks so much that he has to flee to a neighbor’s house when it starts to rain,
“My family depends on me. If I don’t do it because I have health problems, I wouldn’t have rice to eat,” Nhei tells The Post.
Nhei has now joined the Cambodian Women’s Support Group (CWSG), founded in 2015 by Ky Kanary. It is a small social enterprise that uses the sewing of handmade accessories, souvenirs and toys to support the livelihood of its members.
This group of 15 women, all living in different parts of Phnom Penh, was formed to give women back their autonomy and personal power by giving them a way to support themselves.
“Not only does it facilitate their social integration, but it also provides an environment where women can share their experiences, ambitions, dreams and concerns to improve their lives, dignity, confidence and hope,” Kanary tells The Post.
Nhei became a member and says that her two daughters, one of whom is studying medicine and the other works as an English translator, are well informed and employed thanks to the help of Kanary, who has earned her undying gratitude.
The women at CWSG are apprentices at Nyemo Cambodia, which focuses on teaching the arts of sewing and crafts for employment purposes, as well as teaching life skills to women.
Kanary said the Nyemo Cambodia program seeks to help vulnerable women, including those living with crises such as HIV or AIDS, unsafe home environments, family breakdown and a general lack of education.
However, after that organization closed in 2014, Kanary mobilized women struggling to make a living by forming CWSG. She sought out foreign donors who had helped Nyemo Cambodia help CWSG members become financially independent.
Kanary had previously volunteered as a member of the Nyemo Cambodia board of directors, helping to run the socio-medical project for over 10 years.
After the organization’s 16-year mission ended, the women they served integrated into the community and received services from other Nyemo Cambodia partners.
“After the Nyemo Cambodia era, women in the organization had nothing to do to make a living,” Nhei recalls. “I drifted between working as a house cleaner and as a laundress until [Kanary] brought women together at the CWSG.”
Another former Nyemo member, Korng Yari, 49, lives in a shantytown behind the old dairy factory in Tuol Sangke, Russey Keo, with his daughter and son-in-law, as well as two grandchildren. For a while he was working for a drapery store.
“When the store owner didn’t pay our wages and the manager just left with no plan to pay what he owed us, our living conditions became more difficult,” she says. “Sister Kanary called me to join the women’s group. But we need more customer orders because we have very little work to do right now.”
Kanary continues to work with Nyemo Cambodia’s old partners and they continue to order handmade products from CWSG and support her with CWSG operations.
“That’s why we’re here: to provide our craft services to national and international clients,” he says.
CWSG Handicraft provides customers with high-quality custom sewing services that manufacture items such as souvenirs, toys, gifts, wedding gifts, dolls, casual wear, home décor products including curtains, pillowcases, blankets, and rugs, as well as such as handbags, wallets and scarves.
“The most popular products for customers include a handmade round ball with a bell decorated with the numbers 1-12 and the Khmer and English alphabets. Stuffed butterflies, elephants, bears and dinosaurs, bags, pillows and cushions, as well as body accessories are also popular,” says Kanary.
Most of CWSG’s products are sold in collaboration with Cambodia Knits, to whom CWSG ships its products at the CK store, but some foreigners who have come to visit Cambodia have purchased some of CWSG Handicraft’s products to sell online. stores
However, the support of local customers has not yet been enough for the group of 15 women to depend on this artisan business for a living.
“We receive small orders from abroad and divide them among ourselves, but they are not much. There are organizations asking for masks and t-shirts for the elderly,” said Nhei. “It is very difficult to estimate because the work is not very regular. Every week, I can earn 50,000 to 100,000 riels, which is only enough to buy 10 to 20 kg of rice.”
Currently, the CWSG has partnered with Only One Planet, Cambodia Knits, Daikou Bag, Modimade, Fair Fashionista, Faire Trendy, and ALMA-M as product manufacturers.
Nomi Network helped train them in sewing techniques, while SHE Investment helped with entrepreneurship.
Kanary said increased customer service could help women earn money to pay for health care and send their children to school. In addition to that, CWSG helps underprivileged women to make friends and share positive experiences, as well as develop and improve their sewing skills to ensure higher quality products.
CWSG tries to adhere to the three ‘R’ concepts (reduce, reuse and recycle) to save the environment.
“Each handmade product is made with the purpose of entertaining, educating and conserving the environment because we produce products that are reusable and made from recyclable materials,” says Kanary.
“Decorative items and toys were produced from sarongs, karmas, or cotton fabrics recycled from old bags, pillows, and other accessories. I also ordered old newsprint to pack our handmade products instead of using new gift boxes,” she says.
However, low customer demand, or possibly due to higher prices for products that are more difficult for local consumers to sell, has slowed production by the women of CWSG.
“Because all of our women lack the ability to sew garments or clothing for clients, we have struggled to develop a market for national and international clients,” Kanary notes. “Most of the members are illiterate, which makes it difficult for them to communicate with clients or learn design ideas or develop skills on their own.”
“Cambodians are not yet motivated to make an effort to use local products. Instead, they prefer to use imported brand name products from other countries,” she says.
However, Yari said she was luckier than most because she was able to take direct orders from customers, which keeps her business busy.
“I have received requests from guests and with Sister Kanary’s permission, I have always had a permanent job,” she says. “We would like to ask local customers to help us with CWSG orders so we can have jobs to support our families,” says Yari, as she sews the Apsara dolls.
The founder of the CWSG states that the handcrafted products are available for purchase in national and international markets and that the CWSG is committed to reducing the use of plastics to help save the environment.
“If there are many local customers, we can earn enough money to buy rice,” says Nhei. “If we don’t have much work, we have to go to teacher Kanary to borrow money for food. When there is an order, she deducts a little bit of the money we owe from the payment, but not all at once, because she feels sorry for us”.