A Cambodian social entrepreneur’s silk weaving center combines business and nonprofit models to give rural women power over their own lives.

Through a mud-spattered windshield, Phnom Penh’s scrum of tuk-tuks and motos slowly morphs into rice fields and villages, then soldiered rubber plantation rows, and finally, desolate scrub and dust.

Chantha Nguon weaves her blue RAV4 with steady authority through a melee of oxcarts, livestock, oncoming trucks and motos piled high with baskets, live pigs, and somehow, mattresses. Traffic thins to nil as we near Stung Treng, a remote town in northeastern Cambodia near the old Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Lao border.

When Nguon found her way to Stung Treng in 1995 after fourteen years as a refugee in Vietnam and nearly ten more in Thai refugee camps, she recalls, “I knew at once that I wanted to live there.” She loved the exuberant greenery, the slow crawl of the wide Sekong River, the quiet pulse of village life.

For more than two decades of war and exile, Nguon waited for her life to begin. She lost her entire family, often went hungry, and gave up her dreams of medical school. “It was a dark hole in my life,” she recalls. “My soul was floating.”

“Now I am free,” she says with a broad, girlish grin. It’s true: the petite 51-year-old moves in the world like a person wholly unconfined by other people’s opinions and dictates.

“I am not a real Khmer woman,” she says wryly, only half joking. What sets her apart, she explains, is her outspokenness, her youthfully stylish Western skirts and blouses, and her oxlike determination to implement her vision, against any odds. She admits that she’s not the kind of demure Cambodian female many people expect. But after enduring very nearly the worst of what life has to offer, she can’t be bothered to care what anyone thinks.

“What is there left to be afraid of?” she says, tossing her head back with her unrestrained signature laugh, at once jubilant and terribly knowing.

The material expression of Nguon’s freedom, and the realization of her vision, is a modest compound of open-air wood structures that she and her husband scraped out of the surrounding jungle. A hand-painted sign along the driveway reads, “Stung Treng Women’s Development Center” (SWDC) in English and Khmer. Inside the gate, a kindergarten teems with laughing children; cooks peel root vegetables in an outdoor kitchen; and in a long, airy building, young women thread brilliant silk strands back and forth, on a row of hand-build looms.

Nguon and her husband Chan founded the Stung Treng Women’s Development Center in 2001 after several years of working with medical NGOs and, most recently, running a hospice facility for women with HIV. Nguon cared for dying women and girls who’d been ground down by poverty and the sex trade. She loved the work but felt a sense of futility. That’s when she started thinking: What if I could help women find another way?

Nguon’s idea was to combine business and nonprofit aid models—a silk-weaving center that would offer women a new skill and a way to feed their families, along with services the poorest women desperately need, such as nutritious lunches, child care, basic health education, and literacy training. SWDC was born on a shoestring, launched with the help of a grant from a family foundation based in Nashville, TN.

The family helped Nguon set up online sales and jump-started her business by selling to friends, family, and church members. Nguon remembers the day the call came in with an order for more than a thousand scarves. “I was screaming,” she says.

Today, SDWC employs almost 50 women as silk weavers, spinners, and support staffers and offers daily lunches, health classes, and a school for the youngest children. Nguon also operates a gift shop in Stung Treng, where the intricately woven scarves cost anywhere from $35 to $100. “We don’t want to be beggars,” she says. She wants the business to sustain itself.

SWDC is the home and life’s work for which Nguon waited so long. But she also worries; until she can find a way to sell more scarves, she’ll still have to rely somewhat on small grants from NGOs to keep the program running. Lagging sales in a tough world economy forced her to cut her work force—she employed as many as 100 women before the recession—and that pains her terribly. “I feel responsible for them,” she says. And she frets about where her employees may wind up when they leave SWDC—the rice fields? The garment factories? Or worse?

“It’s very vulnerable to be a woman in Cambodia,” says Nguon, sipping Indochina’s famously strong, sweet coffee at SWDC’s tiny café. “She has no value. She has no voice.”

The pain of that vulnerability—the lean years in Saigon and Thailand, of depending on other people to survive—has never left Nguon’s mind. In the camps, she scraped together every extra cent to pay for English lessons, then worked as a translator and nurse in the clinic there. She learned that freedom means depending on yourself, learning a skill, and earning your own income.

She wanted to offer that same possibility of independence to rural Cambodian women—women like Nuon Srey Nim, who lost her parents as a teen and had to care for her younger brothers by herself. “Some nights we didn’t have any food,” she recalls.

She joined SWDC’s literacy classes, then got a job there two years later. Now she supports herself and her siblings, and she’s learned to read a bit. The 24-year-old smiles with quiet pride as she talks about the new skills she’s learned: mixing colors, and dying the shimmering silk scarves SWDC creates, which are branded as “Mekong Blue.”

“I am very happy to work here,” she says, her voice a whisper.

“Nuon Srey Nim is one of the hardest stories we have,” says Nguon. “Ten years ago, she was living a no-lights life…(then) she starts to receive a salary, which will never happen if she is alone. She will have to work in the rice field…and catch fish to support her family.”

“I love this work,” Nguon adds after a long silence, her eyes following the low murmurs of women at their looms, across a sunny clearing. “I love to see the women I work with change their lives that way.” Her employees tend to delay marriage, she says. They have fewer children than their peers, and some of them even build their own houses. And her greatest wish is to hire them all.

“For me, freedom is having important work to do,” she says. And the curse of being Chantha Nguon is that no matter how much work she does, she never feels that it’s enough.

Freedom’s Promise is partnered with Mekong Blue to bring you the 100% silk fair trade scarves from Stung Treng Women’s Development Center. To help empower these women, shop our selection today and help spread the word.    

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