Sitting in a tiny space with both hands busy controlling the tip of her needle as her stitches give form to the green fabric, Sok Nhei is happy to be filling an order for 10 plush crocodiles from a customer.
Located on the third floor of an apartment building in Boeung Keng Kang II on the same block as the former Kirirom Theatre, the 56-year-old woman relies solely on her sewing business to support herself and her two daughters in a house where the roof leaks so badly she has to flee to a neighbor’s house when it starts raining,
“My family depends on me. If I don’t do it because I’m struggling with my health then I would not have any 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 its members’ livelihoods.
This group of 15 women – all living in different parts of Phnom Penh – was formed to give the women back their autonomy and personal power by giving them a way to support themselves.
“It not only facilitates their social integration, but also provides an environment where women can share their experiences, ambitions, dreams and concerns to improve their lives, dignity, trust and hope,” Kanary tells The Post.
Nhei became a member and she says that her two daughters – one of whom is studying medicine and the other has a job as an English translator – are knowledgeable and employed as a result of the assistance from Kanary, who has earned her eternal gratitude.
The women in CWSG are trainees at Nyemo Cambodia, which focuses on teaching the arts of sewing and handicrafts for employment purposes as well as teaching the women life skills.
Kanary said the Nyemo Cambodia programme 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 organisation closed in 2014, Kanary mobilised women who were struggling to make a living by forming CWSG. She sought out foreign donors who had assisted Nyemo Cambodia to help the members of the CWSG 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 more than 10 years.
After the organisation’s 16-year mission ended, the women they served were integrated into the community and provided with services from other Nyemo Cambodia partners.
“After the Nyemo Cambodia era, the women in the organisation had nothing to do for their livelihoods,” Nhei recalls. “I drifted between working as a house cleaner and a launderer until [Kanary] gathered the women together into the CWSG.”
Another former Nyemo member – 49-year-old Korng Yari – lives in an irregular dwelling behind the former dairy factory in Tuol Sangke, Russey Keo, with her daughter and son-in-law as well as two grandchildren. For a while she was working for a curtain shop.
“When the shop owner failed to pay our wages and the manager just took off without any plan to pay what was owed to us our living conditions became more difficult,” she says. “Sister Kanary called me to join the women’s group. But we need more customers ordering because right now we have very little work to do.”
Kanary continues to work with Nyemo Cambodia’s former partners and they continue to order handmade products from CWSG and support her with CWSG’s operations.
“So that’s why we are here – to provide our handicraft services for national and international clients,” she says.
CWSG Handicraft provides customers with high quality custom sewing services making items such as souvenirs, toys, gifts, wedding gifts, dolls, casual clothing, home decor products including curtains, pillowcases, blankets and rugs as well as bags, purses and handkerchiefs.
“The most popular products for customers include a handmade round ball with a bell decorated with the numbers 1 to 12 and the Khmer and English alphabets. Also popular are stuffed butterflies, elephants, bears and dinosaurs, bags, pillows and cushions as well as body accessories,” Kanary says.
Most of the products from CWSG are sold in collaboration with Cambodia Knits – who CWSG consigns their products to at the CK shop – but a few foreigners who have come to visit Cambodia have bought some of the products from CWSG Handicraft to sell in their own online shops.
However, the support of local customers has not yet been enough for the group of 15 women to rely on this handicraft business for their living.
“We receive small orders from abroad and divide them between us, but they don’t amount to much. There are organisations that order masks and shirts for the elderly,” Nhei said. “It’s very difficult to estimate because the work is not very regular. Every week, I can earn between 50,000 and 100,000 riel which is only enough to buy 10-20 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 makers.
Nomi Network helped train them in sewing techniques while SHE Investment helped with entrepreneurship.
Kanary said that increased customer support could help the women earn money to pay for health care and send their children to school. In addition to that, CWSG helps disadvantaged women make friends and share positive experiences, as well as develop and improve their sewing skills to ensure higher quality goods.
CWSG tries to adhere to the three ‘R’ concepts – reduce, reuse and recycle – to save the environment.
“Each handmade product is made for the purposes of entertaining, educating and conserving the environment because we produce products that are reusable and made from recyclables,” Kanary says.
“Decorative items and toys were produced from recycled sarongs, karmas or cotton fabric from old tote bags, pillows and other accessories. I also asked for old newsprint to pack our handmade products instead of using new gift boxes,” she says.
However, low demand from customers or possibly due to higher product prices that are a harder sell for local consumers, has slowed the CWSG women’s production down.
“Because all of our women lack the ability to sew garments or clothes for clients, we have struggled to develop a market for both domestic and international customers,” Kanary notes. “Most members are illiterate making it difficult for them to communicate with customers or find out about design ideas or develop skills on their own.”
“Cambodian people are not yet motivated to go out of their way to utilise local products. Instead, they prefer to use brand name products imported from other countries,” she says.
However, Yari said she was luckier than most because she was able to receive direct orders from clients, which keeps her business busy.
“I have received orders from guests and with the permission of Sister Kanary, I have always had a permanent job,” she says. “We would like to ask local customers to help us with orders from the CWSG so that we can have jobs to support our families,” says Yari, while sewing together Apsara dolls.
The CWSG’s founder states that the handicraft products are available to purchase for both domestic and international markets and the CWSG is committed to reducing the use of plastics to help save the environment.
“If there are a lot of local customers, we will be able to earn enough money to buy rice,” says Nhei. “If we do not have a lot of work, we must go to teacher Kanary to borrow money for food. When there is an order, she deducts a little of the money we owe from the payment but not all at once, because she feels sorry for us.”