WOMEN empowerment and the celebration of culture through traditional textile-making catapulted 2015 Ramon Magsaysay recipient from Lao People’s Democratic Republic Kommaly Chanthavong to great heights, proving that going back to your roots does not impede progress.
Chanthavong, who received the prestigious award dubbed as Asia’s Nobel Peace Prize on August 31 along with four others, shared about her work in silk weaving and its impact on the economic development of local communities in Lao PDR in a lecture series held at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila.
According to Chanthavong, more than just being an heirloom from mothers to daughters, the art of silk weaving proved to be a strong source of income for women who need not go to the cities for work.
Before foreign factories and modern production methods entered Laos, women in the countryside realized silk weaving provided income. They had very few opportunities for education, but they were well-taught in silk-making by their mothers and grandmothers, and that industriousness was well regarded in society, she said in a speech read by a translator.
The 71-year-old social game changer established the Phontong Weavers shortly after the Laotion Civil War in 1975, providing work for war-displaced women. The Weavers, who used to be a mere 10-member group, then grew to become Phontong Handicraft Cooperative, which includes over 450 artisans in 35 villages in Laos.
Having gone through a series of challenges throughout her life, from being a refugee at age 13 during the Indochina War to surviving hard times buying and selling goods during the communist takeover of Vientiane, Chanthavong kept her love for the traditional art she learned from her mother at age five.
Soon after, the government recognized Chanthavong’s efforts in reviving the silk-weaving industry through the opening of Mulberries Organic Silk Farm that created jobs for silk farmers and innovated silk production in the country; and Camacrafts, which is a project helping market traditional Lao handicrafts.
Chanthavong provided young girls weaving lessons free of charge during school breaks, invited expert weavers to guide members of the weaving association in new techniques, and gave small loans to members with personal financial needs.
As the government recognized our efforts, we gained access to raw materials and evolving credits. These factors helped us in assisting women in the countryside to have regular work and to have fair income to help with their families. As a result of this growing economic capabilities, the status of women were slowly raised in society, Chanthavong said.
Our goal is to strengthen the position of women by giving them a dependable income and thus improve the chances of their children, she reiterated.
Aside from running the cooperative, Chanthavong also explored innovations in silk production, exploring with hybrid silkworms and new farming techniques.
Organic farming is important to me. It is important to protect the environment with the help of silk farmers by not using chemical.
This led to organic-farming education from the Minis agriculture and forestry of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, she said. Chanthavong advised silk farmers to give special attention to producing high-quality mulberry leaves and its feeding processes according to the life stage of a silkworm. She said clean environment for the worms should be ensured since diseases tend to spread easily. Organic compost and silkworm renewables can also be explored for an increased income from sericulture.
According to Chanthavong, challenges in reviving the weaving industry in a country depend the solidarity among people and of other nations with the same culture and expanding the market by coming up with new designs that suit the modern times.