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Empowering Ethnic Minority Women – Preserving Art Forms

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Viet Nam’s Kinh (Viet) people and ethnic minority groups such as ateh Hmong, Dao and Thai all practice embroidery from ancient traditions that have roots in China and Thailand. The ethnic minority work tends to be less pictorial and more abstract that Kinh pieces; all groups use embroidery primarily to decorate clothing, giving each group its unique identification. Ethnic minority embroidery has become a favorite souvenir for tourists. Some producers, urged to create products as quickly as possible, have abandoned traditional designs and fine workmanship. Middlemen frequently benefit the most while the producers – mostly women – receive little for their labor.

Craft Link, a non-governmental organization founded in 1995, helps preserve the ancient techniques of ethnic minority embroidery while educating the public and creating a livelihood for impoverished rural women. Craft Link approaches ethnic minority groups known to have a specific traditional skill, or humanitarian organizations introduce groups to Craft Link, or ethnic minority producer groups approach Craft Link themselves. Craft Link provides women in producer groups with financial support as well as simple course in basis production, accounting, marketing, product development and management. The courses are key since many women who try to sell on their own frequently take a loss. Craft Link teaches the women how to price their wares in line with expenses.

Craft Link sells the products through its retail outlet and has the added benefit of association with the Ha No based Museum of Ethnology. Whenever Craft Link begins working with a new ethnic minority group, the Museum’s researchers study the local traditions to gain a better understanding of the community. Craft Link’s designer take this knowledge into account as they assist local artisans in conceiving new products – such as handbags, and cushion covers that feature Hmong or Dao designs. These items appeal to modern consumers yet maintain traditional techniques and motifs.

Craft Link currently exports to France, Japan, Singapore, Canada, the UK, the US, Belgium, Italy and France. Craft Link’s American buyers include Global Exchange, SERVE International, and Ten Thousand Villages, three non-profit groups that promote fair trade through retail stores in the 35 states. Former U.S. President and Mrs. Clinton visited the Craft Link store at Van Mieu during their trip to Vietnam last November. “I love stores like this,” Mrs. Clinton said. After perusing some Dao embroidered cushions covers, he added, “These are fantastic! I bet you could sell tons of these in America.”

Reviving a preserving traditional embroidery designs is important to the cultural heritage of Vietnam. Making and selling these products also empowers women producers. Some earn as much as US$90 per month. The women’s role within the family changes with their income-generating potential.

For example, the distribution of family workload among the Hmong in Sa Pa’s Ta Phin Village has become more equal. In the past, the men stayed at home while the women worked in the fields and also cared for the children. Now women stay at home and take care of their children as they embroider, and the men work the fields. With greater earning power, women also assume a larger role in family and community decision making.

The additional income allows ethnic minority women to improve their lives in small but affirming ways. For example, many Hmong women in Pha Xac Village, Ky Son District in Nghe An Province had lost their teeth at early ages because of vitamin deficiencies. With extra income, they could replace them, improving their health and enhancing self-esteem. As one woman said, “I laugh freely now, without hiding my mouth.”

Of course some rural groups do not understand why outsiders want to help. However, Ms. Lan, the Craft Link business manager, reports that women become enthusiastic after a few months with the project, although differences in culture and language sometimes lead to misunderstandings. Ms. Huong, the Craft Link head designer, recounts one amusing story about a Thai minority group in Quy Chau District, Nghe An Province. “We send greeting cards to our producers for the Lunar New Year.

Last year we scanned some photos of very fine Thai work to make a greeting card. About two months after the Lunar New Year, we received a package of products from the Thai group in Quy Chau. When we asked them why they’d sent us items we’d never ordered, they said they’d received the photographs. They thought our greeting card photograph was want we wanted them to make! At the time, we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

Craft Link’s success has spawned dozens of imitators. Consumers patronizing other stores should educate themselves before making a purchase to be sure a traditional ethnic minority design has not been changed. In the way, buyers can help keep the traditional work pure. Purchasing these traditional products also assists Craft Link in helping revive ancient techniques.

The Craft Link store is located at 43 Van Mieu Street, across from the East Side of the Temple of Literature and down the street from the Fine Arts Museum. Craft Link also sponsors two bazaars each year in Ha Noi, one in November and the other in May. The Craft Link website is www.craftlink-vietnam.com

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