Growing with her sister, Sounsrors was raised by a single mom who single-handedly moved her family to Siem Reap to make a living and empower her children’s future through education. “She didn’t know anyone [in Siem Reap]. My mom was very independent,” Sounsrors shared with deep respect and pride. A few minutes into the interview, I could see how much of her mom’s courage and care has taken root in Sounsrors’s own personality and has subsequently given life to Rokhak.
“Rokhak means plants in Khmer,” Sounsrors explained. “When I started in 2017, I wanted to make different handicrafts using many different plants. But for now, we only use water hyacinth because it is sustainable to harvest. It grows everywhere as an invasive plant.” She has no background in plant-based handicraft. So every material, every design is a learning opportunity for herself before she trains her team of weavers and other women in the villages.
While she needs to run the sales and operations of Rokhak, acting like a middleman to the women weavers and buyers in different communities, her passion is clearly in teaching and learning. “We have a team of 4 full-time weavers. But we also went around villages, training women in weaving. Right now, after COVID, we are sustainable but not growing. If we can have more weavers joining Rokhak, we can increase their income.”
Hearing the conviction in her voice, I can help but asked, “Why is it important to increase their income?”
“Many women with 4-5 kids cannot go anywhere out of their homes, so they can take care of their kids. But jobless mom usually don’t have a voice in the family,” Sounsrors replied. Although she cannot speak from firsthand experience, her secondhand account of family violence against jobless mothers in her neighbourhood is already one too many. For a 10-year-old child to hear her neighbours arguing, insulting the wife for having no job and depending on her husband, naturally made her think this cannot be the only future for herself and for women of Cambodia.
Hoping to empower them with the same independence her mom modelled for her, she continued, “The point is not to make a lot of money and control everybody. When people ask, women hesitate to say ‘I am a housewife’ because people will think of them as useless. But with income, a mom will be able to buy things for herself.” And her belief – as proven through her various interactions with women from village after village – is that mothers will use their income to invest in their kids’ education just like her mom did for her.
So with her own savings and a degree in education, she conducted trainings that allowed women to work from home using plants they can find in their own villages. She gave presentations to introduce what is Rokhak, how to collect, select and weave water hyacinth – showing them samples of the bags she has made. These trainings could last 10-11 days each time at no cost to the trainees. Recently, the income from Rokhak has begun contributing to the trainings, becoming for Sounsrors an encouraging sign of a self-sustaining project.
Looking ahead, Sounsrors hope to make the handicrafts more accessible to buyers through social media and setting up a small shop in the city. “Children development is my inspiration to keep up the effort I put into Rokhak. My dream is the children – their smile, their joy. We must create a new future for them.”