The women of Mekong Quilts and their mission to change rural lives

Born in Hậu Giang province of south-western Vietnam, Madam Hồ Thị Kim Chúc’s childhood could well have been considered ‘above-average’ in the region.

She slept in a house made with brick walls and was fortunate enough to be admitted to tertiary education in a bigger city. Despite having to work almost full-time while studying to fund school expenses due to her family’s financial situation, Kim Chúc graduated with a degree in accounting from Cần Thơ University’s College of Economics⁠—a stark contrast to the average palm leaf-covered homes where less than 30% of girls get a shot to complete a college education.


A picture of Madam Hồ Thị Kim Chúc


“Even though more than 70% [of girls from our province] get to attend college today, more than 10% [of girls] have to start working from a young age to provide sustenance for the family,” Chúc related.

A life of purpose-driven community work at Mekong Plus

While searching for her first job post-graduation, Kim Chúc came across a recruitment drive for Mekong Plus, a Vietnam and Cambodia-based non-profit organisation that aims to relieve the region of poverty and inequality through projects involving education, agronomy, infrastructure and more.

Focusing on helping impoverished families and providing scholarships for children for almost a decade, Chúc is now the Project Director of Ánh Dương Centre, a partner non-government organisation born from a collaboration between Mekong Plus and compassionate local volunteers and community leaders.


The Ánh Dương Centre team


“Today, more than two-thirds [of staff & volunteers] at Ánh Dương Centre are females,” Chúc explained.

Protecting women rights and fighting domestic abuse

Beyond providing scholarships for more than 2% of every primary & secondary cohort in beneficiary districts and villages, she considers the fight against domestic violence one of the most rewarding experiences while managing community projects of all types and sizes at Ánh Dương Centre.

“Fueled by alcoholism and gambling, many local men believe they have an innate right to beat and ‘discipline’ their wives,” Chúc added.

Sadly, many local women live by the same philosophy—the peaceful south-east Asian country sees almost 50% of women suffering from frequent or occasional domestic violence despite laws for protecting women set in stone in Vietnam’s written law and constitution.


Domestic violence remain too frequent in rural Vietnam


This number is elevated within the region’s ethnic Khmer minority due to higher levels of poverty.

Thanks to a decade of collaboration between Chúc and trusted female leaders she dubs ‘angels of the community’, at least two shelters have been set up in every village to host women whose lives are threatened by domestic abuse.

With knowledge and experience acquired from monthly meetings at Ánh Dương centre, these community leaders conduct regular workshops that combine open discussions, group activities and drama competitions to help local women respond effectively to and battle domestic abuse.


A workshop about domestic violence organized by Mekong Plus


From instructing women to avoid the kitchen filled with knives, identifying signs of impending bouts of abuse, and preparing a grab bag containing personal identification, essentials and small amounts of money in case of an escape, training often goes beyond just obvious strategies.

“We aim to become a listening ear to women who are suffering from both physical scars and psychological trauma,” Chúc elaborated.

Nowadays, these workshops see an average of 120 participants in each village, with more than 10% of participants consisting of willing males who join to learn how they can help female friends and family members who are subjected to the same abuse.

Another shot at life for underprivileged women at Mekong Quilts

For many women who decide to leave their abusive husbands for a better life, a sustainable income is often the missing link.

In the early 2000s, Mekong Plus created sister social enterprise Mekong Quilts. From quilting work to making handicrafts, the ultimate aim of Mekong Quilts was to provide stable employment opportunities for underprivileged women of various skill levels.

Today, Chúc manages the production schedules of five workgroups in Long Mỹ province, providing work to more than 100 nimble-handed artisans.


A group of craftwomen working on their beautiful quilts


The social enterprise also found a niche in making merchandise out of eco-friendly materials such as water hyacinth, an invasive and floating ‘river weed’ that clogs waterways and kills hundreds of species of aquatic life thanks to its uncontrollable growth and resulting lack of sunlight and oxygen in the region’s vast system of Mekong distributaries.

The process consists of drying the water hyacinth ‘leaf’ fibre, then sorting it by size and weaving it into aesthetically pleasing straw-coloured bags.

The production of just water hyacinth bags alone employs almost 30 women.

Advancing the careers of passionate women

For twins Thanh and Tuyền from Gò Công Đông, a rural district located in Tiền Giang province about 70 kilometres away from Ho Chi Minh City, childhood consisted of harvesting clams and shrimps for sustenance.

Tuyền, the younger sister by half a minute, left school after the 7th grade due to economic hardship to work in a foreign-invested clothing factory for less than US$20 a month.

After meeting a volunteer from Mekong Quilts, Tuyền left a life of repetitious factory-based work to join the world of fabric artisans.


Tuyền posing in front of a quilts at the Mekong Quilts boutique in Ho Chi Minh City


Training and skills training has paid off, with both sisters now managers in the logistics department of the social enterprise. Beyond scheduling the arrival of raw materials, stocktaking and inventory work, Thanh and Tuyền ensure the delivery of goods to customers in Vietnam and abroad goes as smoothly as possible.

“We work closely with our older quilting sisters to complete designs based on diagrams created by designers,” Thanh explained.

“Such work gives them flexibility [to take care of children] once they are adept enough to bring work back to their homes,” Tuyền added.

How you can help Mekong Quilts help even more women

As a mother to a son in primary school, Kim Chúc also realises the importance of education—gender equality workshops co-organised by Mekong Plus & Ánh Dương centre seek to cull bad habits and biases early in life.

Visit the Mekong Quilts product catalogue today to discover many community & earth-friendly products that have helped Mekong Quilts improve the lives of hundreds of female artisans.

Every purchase is a gift that gives twice—blessing your loved ones with a smile while sending a child in the Mekong Delta to school.

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