“The quality and beauty of our products alone make customers honored to own them, but it is the story of courage of all the women who have worked very hard to earn their freedom and independence that make our products truly special. Customers empower the women of Khmer to be productive citizens with each purchase.”
Chantha Ngoun is the founder of Mekong Blue, which is a program of the Stung Treng Women’s Development Centre (SWDC) in the Sreh Poh Village of Cambodia. The center employs 40 female artists in the traditional art of silk weaving. Mekong Blue is the income generation portion of the SWDC which also provides kindergarten and child care for the weavers’ children, a scholarship program for 100 students in first through ninth grade, and literacy classes for the women.
Chantha was born in Cambodia, but forced to flee the country in 1984 during the Pol Pot genocide. She lived in refugee camps with her mother for 10 years before returning to Cambodia in 1993.
When Chantha arrived in Cambodia she worked with Doctors Without Borders in Stung Treng and realized how many women in the community were forced to turn to the sex trade in order to support their families, because they were not educated and did not have any employable skills. In fact, 67% of women in Cambodia are illiterate. Chantha resolved to dedicate her life to helping these women gain employable skills and raise their status in society.
There is a saying in Cambodia, “Man is gold and woman is white cloth.” Chantha explains, “Men can change their cloth as often as they would like and a woman’s only role is to serve her husband.” She wanted to change this idea by providing education and employment for the women of Stung Treng.
In order to do this, Chantha decided to help resurrect the lost art of silk weaving in Cambodia. Chantha was inspired by her grandmother, who worked with her sisters to raise silk worms and weave “Sompot”, the traditional attire in Khmer. Her grandfather sold the cloth out of his boat as he traveled along the Mekong River.
The process of weaving silk cloth can take up to 3 months. The women start by harvesting the silk, then wash and dry it. They spin the silk into threads, and dye it. Next they string the loom creating the patterns in the warp. Finally they weave in the weft. The end result is a stunning elegant work of art.
“My goal,” Chantha says, “is to change our culture so that women are seen as diamonds, rather than cloth.” By creating Stung Treng Women’s Development Centre and Mekong Blue, Chantha has done just that. The weavers in the program are now financially independent. They send their children to school and pay for health care. They are now productive citizens of Cambodia, preserving tradition and earning income through employment that they can be proud of, and sparkling like diamonds!