Empowering the Penan community

Handmade bags: HHP supports Penan weavers by buying and reselling their craft to a wider market.

KUCHING: Since its inception in 2007, Helping Hands Penan (HHP) has been working to empower Penan women and children through weaving and education support.

The non-governmental organisation decided to focus on the Penan as the community was the most in need of help among the ethnic groups in Sarawak.

“When we first met them, we saw that they still live in extreme poverty.

“Their villages lacked basic amenities and most of the children did not go to school,” HHP director Violette Tan said.

HHP began to buy rattan craft from the Penan to resell to a wider market with the proceeds going to food and other items for the community.

As demand for the craft exceeded supply and it became harder to get rattan, HHP introduced plastic strips for weaving in place of rattan, which other ethnic groups were already using.

“The beginning was challenging. We provided them with the plastic strips and helped them with colour combinations, patterns and sizes to make bags that are practical, fashionable and affordable.

“Over time and with practice, the craft improved with suggestions and quality control from us.

“With input of patterns from our volunteers and buyers, some of these weavers came up with their own creations,” Tan said.

HHP is now largely known for selling beautiful handwoven bags by the Penan that not only supports the weavers economically but helps to preserve their crafts and weaving skills.

In the NGO’s early days, Tan said, only the elderly women were weaving as the younger Penan did not see its potential as a source of livelihood.

However, as sales and demand increased following the switch to plastic, younger Penan women started to learn weaving from their elders.

Proceeds from the craft sales are channelled back to the community in various projects, notably supporting Penan children and youth in their education.

HHP’s education sponsorship programme started in 2010 by chartering transport for Penan students to go to school from their villages and donating school supplies.

“Today, we have about 150 Penan students from Year One up to university level under our sponsorship.

“We provide them with a monthly allowance, transport fee, school uniforms and supplies,” Tan added.

In addition, HHP has carried out water projects in two Penan villages and solar light installation in eight villages.

HHP’s work has been affected by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic but the NGO continues to help the Penan as much as it can.

This includes donating laptops to students under its sponsorship so that they can follow online lessons and do their coursework.

“We continue to provide older students with monthly allowance to keep them in school.

“For our weavers, we scout for bulk orders from companies to make door gifts, festive hampers and annual gifts for staff.

“Our volunteers and networks continue to sell the bags, which are still in good demand.

“As a result, the weavers still have income from their weaving work,” Tan said, adding that HHP also organised three rounds of food aid for the weavers during the pandemic.

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