Diamond in the Rough
A Kumnit Thmey employee at work at her station.
Lotus Culture, a Singapore-based charity, provides disadvantaged women and children in Cambodia with education and opportunities to rebuild a financially independent life.
BY KAREN TEE
he next time you need assorted pouches or corporate or door gifts, remember the name Kumnit Thmey, which means new beginnings and ideas in Khmer. This Phnom Penh-based social enterprise offers a wide variety of handsewn products, from cushion covers to passport holders, made by women and children who have been rescued from sexual exploitation. To reach a wider group of customers, these items are sold in Singapore instead of Cambodia.
While the funds raised from the sale of these products are all channelled back to the social enterprise, the small items also double as silent witnesses to the daily struggles that these at-risk women and children face.
Sylvia Lee, 58, a co-founder of Lotus Culture, the Singapore-based charity that started and runs Kumnit Thmey, says: “The things these women and girls make spread the word about their plight and educate others on the importance of helping them make a living so as to prevent them from turning to prostitution.”
Lee was moved to establish Lotus Culture after a 2009 meeting with Cambodian anti-trafficking activist Somaly Mam. “Her dedication to rehabilitating Cambodian girls and women rescued from brothels, as well as victims of trafficking, inspired me,” Lee recalls.
The meeting spurred Lee to make a trip to Cambodia, where she visited the rehabilitation centres to gain insights into the situation. The horrific realities spurred her to take action.
In 2010, she set up Lotus Culture with two other founding members, also from Singapore, to help rebuild the lives of sexually exploited
and trafficked women and girls in Cambodia. The organisation’s key beneficiary is Agir pour les Femmes en Situation Precaire (AFESIP) Cambodia, a non-governmental organisation that cares for and secures the rights of women and girls victimised by human trafficking and sex slavery.
It currently shelters up to 200 women and children across its three centres in Phnom Penh, Kampong Cham and Siem Reap.
Since 2012, Lotus Culture has been funding AFESIP’s mental health care programme at these three centres. With funds raised from donations by the founder’s friends, family and personal networks, Lotus Culture has contributed to staff support, training programmes and rehab sessions.
“The psychology programme for the women and girls is a critical first step in the long journey of recovery from the trauma, not only of the physical violation of their bodies but also the mental distress from having been sold or duped into sex slavery,” explains Lee.
Kumnit Thmey sells hand-sewn products including organisers and zip pouches.
In addition, AFESIP also runs classes to impart occupational skills such as hairdressing, sewing and weaving to the women, so they will have a way to reintegrate themselves into the community.
This was where Lee saw the opportunity to establish Kumnit Thmey and sell their wares in Singapore. Women and girls who are rehabilitated at AFESIP and take up sewing classes are recruited to work at Kumnit Thmey.
To further encourage them to continue improving themselves, Lotus Culture offers these women language and numeracy classes after office hours. It also runs a savings scheme, which doubles as a micro-financing unit for employees to help them gain financial freedom.
Lee and her team run Lotus Culture voluntarily. Besides the women, part-time administration staff and a local technical supervisor are also on its payroll.
To date, Kumnit Thmey has provided employment for 13 women and helped four of them buy their own land.
This gives them a security and stability that’s hard to come by in a country where, according to Unicef, 18.6 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line of US$1.25 (S$1.70) a day.
Says Lee: “They have gained back their human dignity and confidence to lead a normal life.”
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