Helping Penan Women Lead Better Lives

The combination of her love for the arts, a background in designing and a move back home to Sarawak led Ann Wong to discover handicraft by Penan women and co-found the Penan Women Project with Shida Mojet. “I actually met her (Shida) and told her I just wanted to volunteer. I have this use of my background, and I thought we can bring up the brand and the bags as high-quality handicraft items,” shares Ann. She has hopped on board more than three years ago, and it was then did they formally named themselves the Penan Women Project (PWP). Initially they started off as a non-governmental organisation (NGO) as they were a little unsure of the ‘social enterprise’ label — particularly Ann, who admitted that she had been slightly out of touch with the world, “…because I had been having babies,” but later came to embrace the term as their group was a self-sufficient one. PWP’s weavers come from Ulu Baram, which is about 8 hours’ drive from the nearest city, Miri.

Traditional Penan baskets are usually made out of rattan, which is difficult to harvest and process; resulting in the production of a mere two to three baskets per month. Their solution to this problem was to combine the Penan way of weaving to craft baskets and other items using plastic which is sturdier, cheaper and readily available in local convenience stores. While PWP’s initial offerings had consisted of assorted baskets, they began expanding to include other items such as woven clutches and embellished tote bags. Most of their products are retailed around the range of RM40 to RM200, except for a few items which result from collaborations with other designers. Ann’s role in group largely involves her providing feedback over the quality of their items as well as on the details other people might not fixate on such as the colour & the designs of these items. “I tell these women that when customers buy these bags, they are helping you; so you need to return that help by making quality products for them to keep supporting you.” She admitted that the quality of their items were initially quite bad, but a strong emphasis on improving quality meant this became less of a hurdle over the years. Ann is also a springboard of ideas for the group as she constantly comes up with new designs and items for the group, saying “…we don’t want to depend on the baskets alone, as everyone will eventually have it, you know?”

Ultimately, PWP’s main goal is to empower the Penan women who work with them by helping them make their own income to provide for themselves and their families rather than being reliant on handouts. While they did raise funds during their first year of operations, PWP had became self-sustainable during their second year running and could utilise their own money. They started off with a number of 15 to 20 weavers, eventually growing to their current number of 60-plus. As PWP is still a relatively small group, they were not able to take every single weaver that was interested to work with them; although according to Ann, “…we usually try to prioritise helping the ones who can’t come out from the interior areas,” Nevertheless, PWP’s success has encouraged some of these women to form their own group of weavers and establish similar setups among themselves. While problems like exploitation of weavers among these self-contained groups and intellectual property of the items’ designs are beyond Ann’s control, Ann has implemented measures such as training selected weavers as leaders who could report back to her and manage quality control issues to keep PWP running smoothly. Ann considers the entire set-up as a stepping stone for the Penan women & community in general towards better lives, and her network of friends & family also provides further assistance to them in terms of medical check-ups and job opportunities beyond the Sarawakian interior.

Aside from inviting other designers to collaborate with them in the design process of PWP’s products, Ann works with Iban women to incorporate their beadings into PWP’s products as well as in putting their accessories for sale. Other artisans are also welcomed to put up their products along for sale whenever PWP opens up a pop-up booth. “We’re very trust-based, even in terms of our operations – it’s all very open and transparent,” says Ann. PWP sells their items in bulk at one-off pop-up events rather than at bazaars for a reason: the amount and the range of items being sold meant requiring a huge amount of space. A pop-up event usually requires a minimum of 2 months’ preparation in advance, and leftover items from these pop-up sales are usually taken on by other interested parties to be sold in their respective outlets for the rest of the year. When asked on her plans for Penan Women Project in the future, Ann laughs and tells us that she wasn’t that ambitious; as she is pretty content with being able to help the Penan community. “I just started it because I saw the potential, and I wanted to help people. It was all very go with the flow — for me, the more we can help them, the better.”

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