Youth Co:Lab story: IY4SD – Modern Indigenous weaving product to promote understanding towards Gender, Indigenous people and livelihood
Mae Sam Laep Village, Sop Moei District, Mae Hong Son Province has an unique characteristic.
It is located on the Thai-Burma border, the Salween River serves as a borderline.
In 1994, the village area was declared a part of the Salween National Park. The modern forest conservation regulations have left profound impacts on the locals whose ancestors had settled before. The villagers have become the other in their ancestral land, their traditional habitation and livelihoods which rely on natural resources have been restricted.
Karen indigenous is the major population which 60 percent of the population remained stateless. As a result, they are unable to travel, go to study, nor work independently.
The COVID-19 pandemic had a huge impact affecting the neighbourhood and people. Besides being strictly observed as the village located on the border, community members also lost their incomes as many of them earned money from carrying things from the river port. However, the port and the border have been closed since the outbreak in March 2020.
Mee-Mameaseng Siriwalai, Siri-Siriwan Pornin, AIr-Nongair Sairongyamyen from Indigenous Youth for Sustainable Development (IY4SD) Team are youths in Mae Sam Laeb who play another role as a volunteer of Sangsan Organization. The three have continually worked closely with the village regarding women and children’s rights. During COVID-19, the organizations and partners have supported the community by handing out emergency relief packages including rice and basic food for many times. However, they always realize that such support is just a short term solution. Fortunately, the three discovered and learned about Youth Co:Lab, the intention to solve problems sustainably became possible.
The Problem’s Owner
Mee and air were born and raised in Mae Sam Laeb while Siri has been a Sansan’s volunteer working with the community since she was young. Thus, they understand the conditions, context, problems, and culture well. Additionally, they are also facing challenges living their lives in the community.
Besides the mentioned difficulties above, Some IY4SD members describe themselves as LGBTQI.
“We face unfairness regarding sexual dimensions. If you come out, you risk of being forced to marry as they believe that it can help change your sexual orientation. We are not accepted by family nor community. Additionally, many youths cannot have access to education, nationality, job, and school. We feel unsafe,” reflected Air.
IY4SD came up with an idea to produce contemporary-rainbow-color products utilizing Karen wisdom. The products aimed to be communication tools to speak out on gender issues along with enhancing the quality of life of women in the community through economic empowerment which consequences to reduce poverty together with restoring the weaving wisdom of Karen.
“We, as Sansan’s volunteer, has created a space for female indigenous to share their own problems and voices in order to escape from the poverty crisis and Covid-19 impact,” explained Mee adding that as they invited women in the community to gather and exchange ideas about what they want to do, out of thirty women, only three were interested in sewing while others were interested in agriculture and animal husbandry.
“What we are doing is not just for the community, but for ourselves. We are Karen, but we do not have any experience in weaving. In the formal education system, we are not allowed to speak Karen in schools. If we do, we can be punished. Also, if we wear a Karen traditional outfit, we can be bullied. These make us afraid to wear it. So what we are making, it’s not just a garment but we are restoring our roots in order to tell who we are,” Mee clearly explained.
The IY4SD team participated in the Youth Co: Lab workshop and made it to the 5 final teams. They received a fund to prototype their idea. Apart from Youth Co: Lab, IY4SD has also received support from Sangsan, Chimmuwa Chiang Mai and Thai Consent.
What IY4SD first did was not to teach how to weave, they have designed the activities with multiple stages. Before getting into the weaving skill content, they began from empowerment, providing knowledge about human rights, leadership and engagement skills.
“Because our target is LGBTQI youths and stateless indigenous women, besides economic conditions, they also face domestic and gender violence . If we don’t empower them on these, women in our community are controlled. We don’t have any power to make decisions,” explained Mee. “If rights are not understood, it’s impossible for them to weave. This step is therefore very important. Empowerment is the starting point for strengthening women to deal with their problems, being able to manage their time, daring to negotiate, and having self confidence.”
Starting from Scratch
Because three of them had no weaving skills. They need a mentor. They approached Chimmuwa Chiang Mai, an organization that empowers women to have a job and get out of poverty, to provide thorough knowledge regarding weaving. The entire process started from observing raw cotton production at Lamphun Province, natural color dyeing at Chiang Mai’s Hod District and weaving at Chimmuwa. Three of them were representatives for this study trip and later passed on knowledge to women in the community. This is because some women are stateless, travelling for them is almost impossible.
Air described the production process of each product is not easy. Once they receive the cotton, it is sent to dye at Hod and shipped back to Chiang Mai. Three of them from IY4SD will work together to inspect the quality of the natural-dyed-cotton before sending the material to the community. When it comes to weaving, they cannot do it immediately. The process starts with designing the products, then boiling the cotton with rice flour and letting it dry in the sun before weaving.
“The process to get one product is complicated and takes time. When people wear women’s products, even us, we are proud of it. It’s not just the garment that we wear, but also the story and the spirit of the weavers. At first, they were in doubt whether the weaving could create them a job, but since they made it, they realize that weaving helped them get out from stress and earn income. And now they also want to wear their own products, though they felt like they did not want to wear them before,” told Mee proudly.
One of the main objectives of producing the products is a campaigning tool and enhancing women’s quality of life, the products are produced without compromising its quality.
“We definitely want to communicate about rights, but the products need to meet the standard. Once a product is done, we don’t sell it immediately. We need to do a quality check first. And we have been confirmed that the products are well-weaved,” added Mee.
More than Garment
Currently, the products are sold online. Siri is responsible for editing the promoting video. Up to present, two sets of products were launched. All items were sold out quickly.
The idea of selling through video is due to Covid-19 limitation. The video is not only to show the product but also communicate problems women and LGBTQI in the community are facing.
For Siri, being involved in this project, she found herself improved in various ways.
“Before, I lacked self confidence. But joining this, I participate and make the best of what I can do. I feel like I’m a grown up now
“Once the video is posted, people buy them all within 15 minutes. I’m so delighted. The money also goes to the women in a fair amount,” Siri added that she was also inspired during a weaving field trip. She crocheted a shirt within 11 days. That achievement makes her realize her own potential.
For Mee, though she is experienced with social issues, joining this workshop topped up her knowledge which she thinks is very practical.
“I’m glad that I got to learn about business models. Previously, I understand the issues people in our community are facing. But when it comes to jobs and money, I was blank. Not until I joined the two months workshop, I gained knowledge about product development and business model,” Mee said “Moreover, I’ve learned about other team’s challenges which are different. I also got to build a network, exchange ideas and views. Most importantly, Youth Co:Lab is also our campaigning space.”
Regarding the impacts on the participating women, Air said it is beyond her expectation.
“At first, they were very doubtful whether they could do it. I also kept my finger crossed. But once we see the first two bags which are pretty and durable, they become more confident. They also started to feel joy when doing the second sets of the products. They can manage to use the earned income on their own. They can also negotiate with their husband,” explained Air, adding that normally the women’s role is to take care of the house at all times. They cannot go out as wanted. “Once they can make some money on their own, the division of housework becomes more clear. The men in the family of the participating women started to have some housework activities such as cooking, taking care of their children. Women tend to spend time weaving as they feel safe and relax. Thus, I really feel that what we’re doing is very meaningful and what the women are doing is very fruitful.
“We realized that what we are doing and all the support we have gained contribute to the solution. This inspires us to keep on doing,” added Air. “The women joining us have increased to 6 people and there will be more to come. Moreover, our project can be a model to other indeginous groups that face similar problems.”