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Empowering rural women in Sabah
Published on: Sunday, January 08, 2017

By Hanaa Wong Abdullah
IN a nutshell, my trip to Pensiangan, which entailed boat rides on the Longgongon River, and staying with the Murut villagers for two nights was a huge eye-opener and a beautiful experience.

My evaluation covered three villages, Kg Sosogoh, Kg Silungai and Kg Salong. However, the women who came to meet us to share their experiences came from not only these villages, but also from a fourth village, Kg Singkaluan.

We were not able to evaluate the Youth group on this trip because their programme ended on August 13, 2016, located in Donggongon. The observations in this report were made from August 11-13, 2016.

The evaluation processes included group discussions, one-on-one interviews, team discussions and field observations.

We sat in a large circle of 15 women on the first day’s group discussion. Anje introduced the team except for Harus, who did not sit with us, and invited all the women present to introduce themselves, their name, how many children they had and which village they were from. These women, besides the ones from Kg. Sosogoh, had travelled with their children from the other three villages and had brought some of their products like chilli, ‘kerepek ubi’ (potato chips), ‘kerepek pisang’ (banana chips), handicraft such as handbags and purses, bead necklaces and bracelets, which they would show us later.

From the group discussions, I learned that the women were organised into groups, with a Group Leader, a Treasurer and members. The Group Leaders spoke with confidence and pride, and described the progress of their respective groups in some detail. One group brought their monthly ledgers showing the ins and outs of the stock they bought and sold in their small ‘kedai runcit’ (general store) - it was evident that the Group Leaders have been learning leadership skills.

I realised that most of the women married young, and started having children at the age of 18.

A few were not sure of their ages, explaining that when they made their National Identity Cards (IC), their dates of birth would only be a best guess by the authorities. I believe this may become problematic when surveys are conducted on the communities to gauge literacy or health or disease occurrence based on age groups but the significant factor would be that they are aware that they married at a young age. However, it seemed that they were not in any hurry to have their daughters marry at too young an age; that within this group of women, most of them have six to seven children and there were some who were already grandmothers at age 42.

Some of the younger women, in their late 20s or early 30s, have three to four children.

I did not venture to ask if they practised birth control but all seemed dedicated mothers.

Some of them from the other villages who came for this meeting with us brought their younger children to stay overnight in Kg. Sosogoh. I also learned from Anne that when field trips like this are organised, the food that is catered or brought in to the village with the team, has to take into account the extra mouths to feed, for the children, and even on some occasions, the men. This was because when they leave home for a day or a night, they are unable to do their daily work to obtain food. Therefore food needs to be provided for.

There are many cultural and social factors to be taken into consideration when planning the training programmes for these women, to take into account that some flexibility needs to be given and accommodation needs to be provided for; that many of the women were waiting for AIM (Amanah Ikhtiar Malaysia), Tekun and YUM (Yayasan Usaha Maju) to arrive in their villages, to offer the micro-credit loans which would be of huge assistance to these groups in need of capital to increase their entrepreneurial activities to earn more income.

From this programme, all groups were given small start-up capital in cash or in kind.

The groups who learned Sewing received some basic sewing materials, a sewing machine for the group, and the groups that learned Gardening received seedlings to start their gardens. Our team suggested that the groups of women present could organise themselves to pool their own resources into a micro-loan for small groups of five.

One of the women had some experience of being in such groups before and offered to organise one group with a monthly RM200.00 commitment for five months and the five women would get RM1,000.00 loan each.

Hopefully, the other groups can model themselves after this first group to get their micro loans started.

My other observation is that not only the women and mothers wanted to learn English so that they can communicate with the European, Japanese, Korean, Chinese tourists that are coming to this area but the teenagers and the primary school aged children as well, because they wanted to learn to be more “cool”.

Apparently, Sister Imelda connected very well with the younger group of children and I taught some basic phrases to the adults first, then the teenagers, phrases which I thought would be most useful for them when needed, in the current situations they are in. Perhaps a simple programme to teach conversational English could be included in future modules designed for these groups in these villages.

There were a number of occasions during the trip where our team consisting of Anne, Anje, Sister Imelda and I, would hold team discussions.

In Kg Salong, at the jetty while we were waiting for our boat to take us to Kg Sosogoh (20 minutes away), a man who seemed familiar with Anje and Anne came to chat. When he was asked to assist to bring some of the women in his village to Sosogoh to join our meeting the next day, he declared that he couldn’t because he was going to Indonesia. I learned that it is very common for the villagers along this river to travel to and fro for trade across the border, which was only a short two hours away on this water highway. One of the more common products traded were live “old” chickens, bought from Papar and sold in Indonesia for a good price. All trading across the border is done in Ringgit Malaysia so the villagers do not worry about currency exchange, which is handled by the Indonesians. I thought this was a good solution for our Malaysian traders who may not understand about currency exchange and exchange rate fluctuations.

In Kg Sosogoh, we were welcomed by the villagers in the main hall, their Balai Adat (Cultural Hall), and very quietly, some of the women came out of their houses and brought with them plastic jugs of coffee, or Milo, with cups on trays, as well as cakes and biscuits. I was informed that it we would have to taste all of what was offered, otherwise, we would risk offending them. There were five or six jugs and trays of food. The strong sense of community was apparent and this support would show up again when we evaluated the general progress of each group on their respective endeavours.

From my field observation, life in the village of Kg Sosogoh revolves around the Balai Adat and the villagers’ houses are attached to the Balai at the four corners of the hall with short staircases leading off the hall to the houses.

Several families live in each unit or room of each house. We visited a kitchen of one of the houses and observed that they cook mostly with firewood and there were two broken gas stoves no longer in use. There were also clear plastic sheets hanging to dry and when I asked what the sheets were for, I was informed that they were for making ‘kerepek ubi’ (crackers), a new skill taught to the women from this training programme.

We travelled to Kg Silungai from Kg Sosogoh on Day 2, which took 40 minutes on the boat.

We passed beautiful scenery on the river and the boatman was very skilled in avoiding all the big rocks.

Upon arriving in Kg Silungai, it was nice to see some of the women who had stayed overnight in Sosogoh the night before. This is the village where the group is running the General Store. However, we visited the Balai Adat first.

We were served with afternoon tea, again with trays of food and jugs of coffee and Milo.

After a short group discussion where the women in this village talked about some of their challenges in maintaining members and their experiences in adult learning, mixed with some news about neighbouring villages, we were brought to the Kedai Runcit run by a group of 38 active members. The store shelves were quite bare because they were about to travel to replenish their supplies to restock the shelves. They sold a variety of goods ranging from Reload Cards for pre-paid mobile telephones, beads for handicraft, sugar, salt, candy to sanitary pads.

This group kept quite meticulous records in their monthly ledgers and although the women’s literacy rate was quite low in the beginning, with the training from this programme, they have learned to keep fairly accurate numbers to record costs and profit. This group has even gone to the extent of opening a bank account, where three signatories have to give their thumbprints to withdraw any money. The balance in their account at time of visit was about RM1,000.00. This was also discussed during the group meeting on Day 1, where the members are considering and proposing for the money to be given to poorer families for education for their children. Such a kind intention from this group of members in this village was very inspirational. Another show of strong community bonds.

There was a group in Kg Sosogoh who planted Jagung Pulut (Glutinous or Sticky Corn) which was served for breakfast on both days. I saw the garden from afar and it looked like a healthy garden.

The ‘jagung pulut’ were fresh and tasty.

We visited a garden, a small ‘kebun’, in Kg Salong on Day 3 where after a short 15-minute trek into the mosquito-infested jungle and across a clear stream which had small fishes swimming in pools, we came upon a clearing with some rubber trees, yam plants which were spaced out fairly evenly and a vegetable patch.

The group of women responsible for this ‘kebun’ informed us that they recently had an addition of a new member, who had not gone through the programme but was willing to be a part of their group to take care of the garden, to share in the work and potential income. It seemed that the community support is so strong that there are no jealousies or ill-will and any woman who is desirous of joining a group is quite welcome.

One of the challenges this group faced before the last harvest was they lost a majority of their crop to wild monkeys which came to the garden from the jungle. Perhaps it would be good to include Pest Control in the future Gardening/Planting “Menanam” module.

Our last stop in Kg. Salong was at a house belonging to one of the women in another group that had grown corn.

They showed us several gunny sacks of dried corn feed and Anne and Anje, representing PACOS Trust, kindly bought all four sacks from the group. A little negotiation between the PACOS team with the group settled on a fair price, taking into consideration that the group was saving their transportation cost to sell at the market (in Keningau, nearly three hours away). The group Treasurer issued a bill and receipt for Anje, with a little instruction from Anje on how to issue these documents and explaining to them the necessity of keeping good records to keep tabs on their costs and profit. These women have learned how to grow crops, they are continuing to learn how to price their products and how to bring them to market. Perhaps the next phase of training could include Marketing and Reinvesting into their businesses.

For interviews, I had the opportunity to sit down with a 14-year-old girl who had stopped school (Form 2) in March and was now staying at home. There are no young siblings she needs to take care of. When Anne and I asked her what she was doing every day, she replied “Nothing.” We tried to ask her the reason for leaving school.

She explained quietly that she was accused of stealing by an older girl who was sharing a room with her in the hostel. Each room houses 4-6 girls. When Anne asked her if she did in fact steal, she vehemently denied that she did. We tried to probe a bit more, and I believe we were not successful in getting to a real reason for her to choose to leave school.

It seems quite common for the teenagers in the villages to leave school at the Form 1, 2 or 3 levels.

(There were some teenaged boys who were also sitting around during the day while we were there.)

This is a worrying trend. Some of the parents of these children try to persuade them to stay in school.

In the case of this 14-year-old girl, Nikelin, she said her older sister, Laina, in Form 4, scolded her for wanting to leave. But in the end, she still chose to do so despite her sister’s reprimand. It would seem that Nikelin is either having trouble in the hostel or school which she is unable to talk about or handle, being afraid of her teachers as well, or, she does not believe that having 11 years of formal education will give her a better future.

It is unfortunate that parenting skills and good communication between parent and child seems lacking.

The women in the group who shared with us did say that they do want their children to have better lives than what they have had. Perhaps a good counselling session or motivational programme on the value of Education would benefit the villagers.

Personally, the first boat ride from Kg Salong to Kg Sosogoh was exciting and enjoyable even though I had to change from my sports shoes to rubber flip-flops and step into the Longgongon River to get on the boat.

It was not too muddy nor unpleasant. I sat near the front on the boat, we were in single file, and I enjoyed the cool wind in my hair and on my face. I thought, with the very humid and warm weather here, it would be nice to be able to swim in the river every day, even though it’s a muddy orange river. Being this close to nature was a rare and enjoyable experience.

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