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Fashioning a way out of poverty


Local businesswomen aim to empower their underprivileged sisters

Keo Pisey: "This is the first time I have got involved in a social issue to help other people."

Rather than wring their hands and lament the lost dignity of young Cambodian women

forced by circumstances into low-paid labor or the sex industry, two Khmer businesswomen

and a local movie star are doing something to help.

Tith Sowathy and Lou Bonary have started Neary Khmer Organization (NKO) in Phnom

Penh. Its purpose is to teach fashion design and life skills to young women as the

first step toward independent retail businesses.

According to Sowathy, poverty and lack of education are driving thousands of Cambodian

women into low paying labor jobs or worse, the sex trade.

"The problem is huge, and we are small, but we believe we can make a difference

to a few," Sowathy said .

Sowathy, formerly the director of Sarika Film Productions, now owns the Modern Design

Class, a fashion design training center. Bonary is an overseas trade and tourism

consultant with her business, Washington Ly Corporation.

Actress Keo Pisey will assist as a volunteer trainer. All will give their time freely

and contribute financially to the cause.

They are seeking support for a fund to provide annual scholarships for 100 Cambodian

women.

"The dignity of women is vanishing," Sowathy says. "In the past young

women could survive by working in traditional, family-based farming where they were

taught good morals by their parents and grandparents. Many have been forced by rural

poverty into garment factories, bars and brothels. They grow up carrying a social

stigma that causes problems when it comes time to marry."

Bonary said NKO plans to spend $22,000 per year running two six-month training courses,

each for 50 women. Trainees will be taught to design and make high-value clothing

and accessories, such as shoes and wallets. They will be encouraged to have self-esteem,

help each other, be educated about money management, morality and kindness, traditional

culture, and personal health awareness, including HIV/AIDS prevention.

The NKO directors will use their business and social connections to promote sales

of goods made by the trainees. Sowathy's customers include the wives and daughters

of high-ranking government officials. One of her popular silk dresses costs $180.

She said NKO hopes to install about 50 tailoring machines by January. They have four

volunteer trainers confirmed.

The scholarships are too small to support trainees full time; they will need to use

their free time to attend the courses, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., six days a week.

Graduates demonstrating commitment and ability will be provided with small ($100-500),

interest-free loans to start their own businesses.

"We don't expect all the women in the courses to meet the skill standards, but

at least by aiming to have two good designers from each course is better than doing

nothing," said Sowathy.

Keo Pisey said she will spend as much of her free time as possible at the courses.

"At this early stage I do not know exactly what I am going to do, because this

is the first time I have got involved in a social issue to help other people,"

said Pisey. "I will persuade my colleagues to support NKO for the improvement

of Khmer women."

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