Story by Vince Stange, Education Program Facilitator for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and ODOV Partner
Sewing provides self-sufficiency, staying in school
It’s 1:45 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon and 16-year-old Phatt Sreyleak is busy taking measurements on another customer. She doesn’t have much time to sit and talk with us, as her shirt orders are backing-up, so she asks if we can talk while she works. Sreyleak runs a tiny storefront shop at the front of her house, located about 20 km from the nearest major town on a dirt road, depending on word-of-mouth to gain customers. The family has no connection to wired electricity, so she uses a gas burner to heat-up a pressing iron as she manually operates the sewing machine with her foot. “I love being able to run this business part-time, and still stay in school,” she says, “It makes me feel independent, and I would not be able to pay for private classes, without it.”
Since Cambodian schools only offer morning classes for free, it is imperative that students planning to go to university and pursue professional careers pay extra money for classes during breaks and weekends. “I want her to stay in-school and become a doctor, but we can’t afford for her to take extra classes and buy stationary on our income alone,” says Sreyleak’s mother, Nyum Huen, “In fact, her father is working in Thailand now, to make extra income so that we can try to save money and pay back the loan we took-out from the bank.” In the meantime, Sreyleak’s mother, who sells gasoline, cold drinks, and vegetables next to the sewing shop, wants her to use any money that is left-over to pay for private classes. Despite heavy financial pressure on the family, she maintains that she will not allow Sreyleak to quit school and work full-time to make more money, stating, “For now, we are getting-by, and her father will stay in Thailand until we can save up more money. I don’t want her quitting high school, since she only has 3 years until she finishes.”
One thing that Sreyleak’s mother loves about her sewing is how she is able to use her creativity to make money. “Her shirts are traditional, but with some unique patterns and pockets; everyone in the area has been hearing about her work and she is getting a lot more customers.”
Unfortunately, Sreyleak is taking-in a very small amount of money at the end of the month, because she must pay back a bank loan that she recently applied-for, in order to purchase her sewing machine, seam machine, and inventory of cloth. “After I pay the loan and for classes, I only have about 20,000 Riel left (approx. $5 USD), but that’s ok, eventually I will have more.” Until then, Leak, who lives with her mother, younger brother, and grandparents, remains very busy—with a full schedule of classes in the mornings, running her sewing business from 1-4:30, and then biking 5 km away for private classes from 5-6.
Prey Veng Province continues to be the poorest province in Cambodia, where the average family is only able to provide for itself for about 9 months out of the year. This puts many families; particularly children, into compromising situations. The lure of ‘quick money’ from factories in Thailand and Phnom Penh often attract children as young as a 11 or 12. As a result of incredibly low rice yields, due to climate, terrain and irrigation constraints, and low availability of formal and vocational education, migration often seems like the only option.
Photo: Srey Leak’s entire family; grandfather, grandmother, mother and younger brother, proudly pose with her and the certificate of completion she earned through the Vocational Training program.
The Occupational Training Program, facilitated by MCC’s partner organization, ODOV, continues to thrive and provide crucial opportunities in Mesang District, Prey Veng Province, one of the poorest areas of Cambodia, with one of the highest rates of work-related migration. The program is equipping woman and men, alike, with the skills needed to start and join existing sewing businesses. This is allowing them to support themselves and their loved-ones, without having to leave the District. Plans are underway to expand the program next year, to teach additional skills, including: small-electronics repair, hairdressing, and cosmetology.
Photo: Srey Leak sews the collar of a dress shirt in her small shop at the from of her house, using a foot-operated sewing machine.
Photo: Srey Leak holds-up freshly-pressed, men’s and women’s dress shirts that she has just finished, standing in-front of her shop.