Development experts believe that educating women and girls is the cornerstone of fighting poverty in the third world. The “Girl Effect” is simple: Help women achieve economic independence, and you empower their kids, their villages, their societies. Studies have shown that money in women’s hands is more likely to go toward food, medical care, and education for their children—and to help break the cycle of poverty for their families.
In rural Cambodia, women suffer disproportionately from poverty. It’s a perfect storm of disadvantages: Village families may send boys to school while expecting girls to work at home and to marry young. Boys are encouraged to become financially self-sufficient, while girls are steered toward becoming wives and mothers. But what happens to a woman and her kids if her husband falls ill or dies? Or if he’s an addict or an abuser, or unable to find work? In those cases, a woman’s choices are stark, and few: work in the rice fields; work in the garment factories far from home; work in the sex trade, to name a few. And the latter is no choice at all.
Chantha Nguon and Chan Dara Kim hoped to offer women another choice: learn a trade, earn a good living closer to home, and rely on themselves. Chantha and Chan have seen the devastating effects of poverty, discrimination, and human trafficking. Chantha worked as a nurse in a Thai refugee camp and directed a mobile health care project for Doctors Without Borders.
“I was working with sex workers,” she says. “And they were dying in the hospital with HIV/AIDS … disease that can be prevented.” In 2001, after Doctors Without Borders ended their Stung Treng mission, the couple’s first foray into independent aid work was a hospice facility for terminal patients, many of whom were infected with HIV.
They believed in the mission, and so did a very few donors—but the trickle of support was never quite enough. For a year, they struggled to keep their hospice afloat. Meanwhile, The Cambodian government had just launched a women’s literacy initiative called “Neary Ratanak”—“Women Are Diamonds.”
“What it the point, ‘diamond’?” Chantha scoffs, with the candid humor of a pragmatist. “The culture of Cambodian men is that man is gold and woman is a skirt.” What that Khmer saying meant, she explained, was that men in Cambodia had value, and women were considered disposable.
Chantha and Chan vowed to help women become diamonds, in a practical sense.
Because the Neary Ratanak initiative offered funding for reading classes, they added literacy to their portfolio, with the idea of transforming their hospice into a women’s empowerment center. But it soon became clear that a year of literacy training was not enough to change a woman’s life. Unable to see how reading would put food on the table, women kept dropping out of classes. “Teach me to fish’?” quips Chantha. “They don’t have time to wait.”
For the “Girl Effect” to be truly transformational, an aid program would have to offer women not just basic education, but also health care and a means of livelihood. Chantha and Chan initially conceived of teaching women the traditional silk-weaving craft as an incentive to keep them in literacy training. Soon, Stung Treng women were clamoring to learn to weave.
Almost two decades later, the women at the SWDC demonstrate what real empowerment looks like. SWDC weavers now earn between $75—$200 a month, more than a primary school teacher makes. Those salaries give women the power to make decisions about their lives that would have been imposed on them when they had nothing.
The services at SWDC also help cushion families from falling deeper into poverty when disaster strikes: Because medical bills can ruin a family financially, SWDC’s free medical care assistance is a vital part of their social safety net. Offering free lunch saves the employees time and money and supplies much-needed protein to meager diets. And having a school on site fulfills a once-impossible dream for poor, working-class families: Mothers don’t have to leave their children at home (and vulnerable) to go to work. They can hear them laughing and singing, in a kindergarten just across a clearing. They know their kids will not be illiterate. They will be fed. They will be safe.
Today, SWDC women are delaying marriage and choosing to have fewer children. And their increased “value” as wage-earners makes them—and their daughters—far less vulnerable to being exploited or forced to choose dangerous work far from home.
“Now they are diamond,” Chantha says. “They make themselves diamond.”