AKRON, Pa. – When Say Sophal was 12, her mother and father died of AIDS. Now a young woman, 17, Sophal faces the challenge of supporting and caring for her grandparents, ages 87 and 94. She and a younger sister live with them in a humble, thatched-roof home in a village of Mesang district, Prey Veng province, Cambodia.
What’s more, Sophal must act within a daunting economic environment. Prey Veng’s economic activity is among the lowest of Cambodia’s 23 provinces, and Mesang is one of its poorest districts. Income-earning opportunities are sparse.
Some 93 percent of Prey Veng’s families name agriculture as their primary occupation. Yet even a decade ago, many of Mesang’s farm families already were unable to grow enough rice to feed themselves, said Andrew Miller, a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) representative for Southeast Asia. He and his spouse, Lana Miller, also an MCC representative, are from Goshen, Ind.
“The need for income drives poor families to send their girls to work in Phnom Penh’s entertainment bars or garment factories,” said Daphne Hollinger Fowler, an MCC worker from Sierra Madre, Calif. “Traffickers target these young, garment factory workers, luring them to the border of Thailand, where they often end up in brothels.”
In the midst of this situation, Sophal learned of a vocational sewing and tailoring program that began at Mesang High School in 2010. She applied and was accepted.
Global Family, MCC’s education sponsorship program, assists the endeavor by providing fabric and sewing materials and teacher salaries to MCC’s partner, Organization to Develop our Villages (ODOV). ODOV develops curriculum for the training program and provides ongoing teacher training.
Sophal continued her academic courses in the mornings and added sewing in the afternoons. The program, which is offered at two other Mesang high schools in addition to Sophal’s, graduated 180 students in its first year – Sophal included.
The Cambodian government and grassroots organizations in Prey Veng view vocational training and livelihood projects as a way to help youth sustain themselves at home, keeping families intact and circumventing some of the social problems that can arise with urban migration.
“Vocational training is a bit of a buzz word these days in Cambodia, as people recognize the need for students to develop new job skills,” said Hollinger Fowler. She and her spouse, Ryan Fowler, also an MCC worker, are helping to build the capacity of ODOV.
Yet, when Hollinger Fowler visited Sophal’s home in January, the program’s impact was evident: “A new sewing machine sits in one corner, rows and rows of colorful shirts and pants hang neatly on the wall behind and a clothes iron smokes and spits over a small fire as her two frail grandparents welcomed us inside.”
In her nine months of study, Sophal learned enough to begin tailoring for friends and family members. Seeing her potential, Sophal’s older sister, who lives in Phnom Penh, helped her buy a sewing machine. In a strictly low-tech operation, Sophal has been stitching together some $50 a month with a treadle machine and coal-heated pressing iron since her graduation. This income allows her to purchase more nutritious food, including fruit, and the daily medicines her grandparents need.
Despite the greater region’s garment factories, demand for custom-made clothing remains high, said Hollinger Fowler. So high that Sophal, one of only two tailors in her village, almost has more customers than she can handle. People look to local tailors to make school uniforms, which are unavailable ready-to-wear, as well as men’s casual and dress shirts and women’s dressy garments.
The vocational sewing students have learned to make quality designs with quality fabric, Hollinger Fowler said, adding, “Some of the styles are very basic while others are trendy enough to meet demand without being so specialized that materials are difficult to obtain.”
Of the 180 graduates of the program’s first class, 28 have already purchased their own sewing machines. They join Sophal in remaining in their home communities, helping attire neighbors in many styles of shirts and pants and keeping hard-earned income in the localities.
Emily Will is a freelance writer from Frederick, Md.