As part of the project “Strengthening access to justice for victims of gender-based violence in Bhutan”, also a two-month tailoring course for women was financed (project partner RENEW; with funding from the Austrian Ministry of Social Affairs/JugendEineWelt). The training should promote their economic independence and enable them to generate an independent income. During a project visit of our association in November we could convince ourselves of the newly gained skills of the 19 female participants and the only male participant of the course from Rinchengang. With great commitment, the women are now already making kiras, tegos and wanjus, the traditional clothing of women in Bhutan, as well as other products and are already receiving orders for sewing work.
A first step towards economic independence
The women in Rinchengang are rice farmers, most of them have not attended school. They live with their families in very simple circumstances. Chimi Wangmo, a young, 34-year-old, very committed rice farmer with four children, has taken on the task of coordinating the sewing course and has assumed the function of group spokeswoman. During our visit we also met the sewing course participants Nima Dema, Zeko and Seldon as well as the only male participant in the sewing course, Asha Lhatu. They proudly showed their certificates of participation and the products of their work. 19 female participants and Asha Lhatu first attended the two-month basic sewing course. During the eight weeks, they learned how the sewing machine works and how to maintain it, as well as how to use the different stitches, take measurements, draw patterns and cut to size. Following this, they were able to attend an advanced course financed by the Finnish organization FIDA International.
Microloans for sewing machines
The women and Asha Lhatu work in the fields during the day, taking care of the household and children. In the evening, they sew. With the help of microloans from RENEW, almost all of the sewing course participants were able to afford their own sewing machine. They are old Singer or Meritt models, although the treadle and flywheel are hardly used anymore. A motor is attached to the back of the machine. Amazingly, not only straight seams but even overlock stitches are possible with these machines.
The participants of the tailoring training have learned to sew tegos, wanjus and kiras. With growing practice, however, they have already ventured into other products: containers for the rice of the first harvest, which is offered in the temple, bags, and even thangkas have already been sewn. The pieces are really very accurate and beautifully made. Meanwhile, hotels and restaurants order uniforms for their staff. Chimi was commissioned to make 30 Wonjus and 50 Tegos. Such orders are then also distributed among the seamstresses and create a good additional income.
A way out of poverty
The only male participant, 48-year-old family man Asha Lhatu lives with his wife and until recently with his three children in very precarious circumstances. His house consists of a single room of about 12 or 15 m2. The room is a kitchen, living room, bedroom, altar room and sewing workshop at the same time. Asha Lhatu does not own his own land, but hires himself out in the fields of other farmers who own land. However, his physical ailments are increasingly causing him problems, so that the hard work in the fields, bending over and carrying heavy loads are becoming more and more troublesome. Asha Lhatu had registered for the tailoring training, but then withdrew his registration at short notice because he felt out of place as the only man in the course. He was then persuaded to join the training after all, where he proved to be very dedicated and talented. Soon he had acquired so much skill that the other participants kept coming to him for advice and help when they didn’t know what to do themselves. With his sewing work, Asha Lhatu now has a small additional income to the field work, which he can only do to a limited extent. The recognition in the community is an additional motivation and a boost to his self-confidence.
Rinchengang – a place rich in history
Located in the central district of Wangduephodrang, Rinchengang initially known as Drinchengang (Grateful Village) is one of the oldest settlements in the country. It is unique and compact agglomeration of mud-brick houses etched on the sloping hillside on the ridge facing the Wangduephodrang dzong.
The settlement dates back to the time of Zhabdrung’s era in 17th century. During the construction of Wangduephodrang Dzong in 1638, the early inhabitants of Rinchengang were believed to be summoned from Cooch Behar by Zhabdrung for the construction works. This tiny parcel of land with an area of 3 acres and 35 decimals was rewarded by Zhabdrung as an acknowledgement for their exceptional hard work and great masonry skills during the construction of dzong.
Rinchengang’s architecture has been preserved since the 17th century. The materials used are vernacular such as timber, stones and mudbricks. The methods of construction are also vernacular and manufacturing of mudbricks is one peculiar skill that the community still celebrates.
The entire land is single Thram, collectively owned by the community with no individual land owner. The main livelihood practice of the people of Rinchengang is agriculture and it is their primary source of income. Paddy is the main crop cultivated extensively in the fields surrounding the village. (Source: Center for Bhutan & GNH Studies (2020): Urban Planning and Wellbeing)
As part of a royal project, it is planned to develop Rinchengang even more as a tourist destination. This is connected with the expectation of being able to use the newly acquired knowledge of the tailoring course for the hoped-for growth of tourism, and thus to open up further income opportunities.