Inside a Prek Toal community home located in the area of a former landfill in Phnom Penh’s Stung Meanchey commune, Ly Vannak was diligently cutting and sewing fabric.
Working alone on the ground floor that was built from brick, the 39-year-old considered it the best option for a mother like her because her poor health didn’t allow her to work under strict factory conditions.
“I came from a poor family and grew up with 10 siblings in Prey Veng province. My parents separated, so the children struggled to live in difficult circumstances,” Vannak told The Post at her house.
She decided to move from her hometown to take up a job in a garment factory in Phnom Penh where she met her husband.
“I got married in 2008 and continued working at a garment factory. Unfortunately, I had some problems and my poor health didn’t allow me to work there, so I was forced to quit,” she says.
Together with her husband, she moved to stay at the Prek Toal community at a former garbage dump site in Stung Meanchey commune.
Having been told that collecting junk could be a source of income to support her family, she didn’t hesitate to become one of the commune’s many scavengers.
“I joined the others to become a waste picker. It was not too difficult to forage for recyclables that could fetch me a little money to survive each day,” she says.
When the Stung Meanchey dumpsite was closed in 2009, Vannak had no choice but to switch back to her old skills. She was lucky enough to meet a generous donor from a church.
“A while after moving here, I met a foreign woman named Tanya. Knowing that I can sew, she bought me a sewing machine and thread,” Vannak says of the Christian woman whom she doesn’t know much about, but is grateful for her help.
“She also helped find me clients and increase my business. Thanks to her, I can continue sewing to support my family even after she returned to her home country,” she says.
Her monthly expense mostly goes to her children’s education and food. She had to be thrifty with her spending. For instance, a proper meal for her family would cost around 10,000 riel ($2.50), but she had to cut it down to just 5,000 riel.
“I cannot be careless when it comes to spending, otherwise I’ll not make ends meet. I would need around $250 a month,” she says.
Her priority is to give her children a good education, and that cannot be compromised.
The Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF) and World Housing are behind the provision of safe and secure homes with basic necessities for a family.
To ensure the future of children and a safe community, they are required to sign an agreement stressing three conditions – that the families who live in these homes will send their children to school, not be involved in any kind of abuse and avoid using child labour to earn money.
The houses are a generous incentive for parents to ensure their children’s safety and education. Families are supportive of their children’s education and encouraging good behaviour is prioritised as a reward for having a decent home.
The former scavenger lives with her husband, a four-year-old daughter, nine-year-old son and a 22-year-old sister. They are all students in kindergarten, grades 9 and 12 respectively.
“When I first came to the Stung Meanchey area, I spent around 8,000 riel monthly in rent and stayed alone. There was no electricity in this area back then. Now we have running water and electricity and we only spend 150,000 riel monthly for housing and utility,” says Vannak, beaming with pride.
Vannak has had to contribute towards land rental, maintenance of communal spaces, toilets and gardens. Rather than offering free housing, the organisation would like the housing recipient to have a sense of sharing responsibility and gradually gaining financial independence.
She understands the contribution policy and is happy to be able to live in her home despite the conditions.
“I think the land price is more expensive, which is why our rental fee here has increased. However, I’m still happy that I can afford to live and enjoy the basic necessities that renting a room cannot provide. I feel a sense of security and am relieved, not having to worry about the renting fee,” she says.
Besides housing, the CCF also employs her husband as a security guard and supports her sister’s education.
“It a big relief for me since I don’t have to worry about not making ends meet. Now I spend less on housing and our cooking pot always has rice donated by CCF as a motivation for us to keep sending our children to school,” she says.
Vannak has to wake up at 4:30am daily to prepare breakfast, help her kids get ready for school and send them there.
Upon returning home, she does some housework – such as cleaning – before sitting for several hours at her sewing machine.
Vannak only takes a short break to prepare food. Most of her time is spent cutting and sewing fabric until 8 or 9pm.
She can sew about 20 shirts, skirts or chef’s aprons a day. She is paid between 1,200 to 1,500 riel for the clothing.
She also sews bags, of which she can make seven or eight a day and earn between 4,000 and 8,000 riel apiece. Vannak also has regular orders to make washable woman’s sanitary pads and for this, she charges 2,000 riel each.
Vannak says: “I hope to get more orders to sew so that I can earn more. My life’s goal is to own a house with a bigger space in the city, so my younger family members will find it convenient to go to school.
“Most importantly, I want to see my children and my sister become well-educated and have decent jobs.
“This is the biggest dream in my life, as I wish to see them working in an office and living independently because I don’t have any savings or property for them to inherit like others,” she says.
While she still journeys to fulfil her dream, Vannak considers it a blessing to receive support until her family is financially independent.
“I thank CCF for giving my husband a job too. Thanks to the organisation, I’m able to work at home without worrying about moving from one place to another. My kids and my sister can go to school because we have a place called home.”