Threading way through poverty
With help from Weaving into Happiness programme, more of China's Miao women are able to earn their own livelihood with embroidery
BEIJING Ms Huang Xijiu received her first bank statement last month. It showed a deposit of 4,800 yuan (S$990), well above the 3,000 yuan annual per capita income in her village. That was for two months' work, stitching traditional Miao embroidery.
Ms Huang, 53, was overjoyed.
She said: "I'd rather do this than feed pigs and chickens. I feel proud of myself."
She picked up sewing as a girl from her mother in Jidao village, in China's Guizhou province.
She soon mastered various embroidery methods, winning two competitions in Kaili, the prefecture seat.
Like many Miao women, Ms Huang viewed embroidery as a way to record life and decorate festive occasions - never as a bread-winning skill. Many Miao women have left the village to make a living in China's cities.
But Ms Huang lacks the ability to develop herself, as well as access to financial services.
"Many of us can barely read or write, so we have no idea how to commercialise our cultural heritage," she said.
Ethnic minority women in China are disproportionately disadvantaged by poverty.
"They need targeted measures to be lifted out of poverty. That's why we, with the China Soong Ching Ling Foundation (CSCLF), introduced the Weaving into Happiness programme," said Ms Agi Veres, the country director of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in China.
"It empowers Miao women to use their embroidery skills so they can make their own livelihoods and opportunities and preserve their culture."
Started last year, the programme invited a Miao embroidery master to test the skills of the Miao women and pay them according to each sewing assignment.
The first workshop had fewer than 20 women and the few who finished the assignment with their best efforts got 200 yuan, but most received nothing.
"The second time, almost every woman joined the programme," said Ms Huang while sewing with two needles - one leading a thread to and from loops, and the other back-stitching.
The double-needle stitch had been disappearing in the village, but the programme revived it.
The programme has organised three workshops over seven months and 46 out of 60 women have become skilled seamstresses. UNDP and CSCLF also trained them in business, helping them win orders from fashion brands.
Ms Chen Qin, 36, served as a village doctor for many years. Last year, she started a microbusiness collecting handmade ornaments and embroidery to sell online to raise living standards.
A lack of business acumen and management experience held the venture back. So when Weaving into Happiness arrived in Jidao, Ms Chen encouraged other Miao women to join.
"Miao women mainly work around the home. So earning money through embroidery was quite beyond their imagination," said Ms Chen.
She also runs her family guesthouse, which provides chances to connect with others interested in cultural preservation and sustainable village development.
Ms Chen's annual earnings have risen fivefold over the last two years to 100,000 yuan, but her greatest satisfaction comes from seeing villagers create opportunities for themselves - and even some young women returning to learn embroidery.
"This way, young mothers can stay with their children," Ms Chen said.
The programme will run for three years in its first phase, and has expanded to workshops in neighbouring Maomaohe village.
Ms Chen said: "(The Miao) are also good at singing. We should make use of what we have to develop the village.
"We'd like to encourage more ethnic minority women to join us and shake off poverty." - XINHUA