Silver linings

Norwa Jewelry leads the way in empowering underprivileged tribeswomen

Paranin Kummata has worked hard to gain the trust of Karen communities. Mr. Patai Jaiboon and Mr. Napat Worravitudomsuk

Paranin Kummata was just 21 and in her first year of university when she decided there was more she could do for impoverished Karen hill tribe women in northern Thailand.

She discovered that one of the biggest hurdles they face in improving their financial situations is the fact that they are stateless people. As a result, they have few rights, leaving them vulnerable to drug traffickers, pimps and gangs.

Paranin decided to use her passion for jewellery making to help. In 2015, she launched Norwa Jewelry in an effort to provide Karen women with an alternative means of income by creating attractive traditional silver jewellery for a global market.

The capital she used to get her new enterprise off the ground came from her other business, Aphrodite Gallery, an online handcrafted jewellery shop which she began in 2012 and which today generates a six-figure income.

Norwa Jewelry, which began in Lamphun province, has grown from strength to strength over the last three years. Part of its proceeds are donated to women's rights causes globally, including the Global Women Peace Foundation, TAMWA, WADI and Forward UK to name a few.

"It has been a fulfilling experience setting up Norwa Jewellery because my desire was to provide a sustainable alternative income for stateless people in Thailand," explained Paranin. "My desire is for Thai society to look at marginalised people as humans, deserving of respect and the opportunities to build a future for themselves and their children."

Today, Norwa -- which in the Karen language means "woman of pure heart" -- is partnered with numerous communities around Thailand, allowing women a creative, profitable and safe alternative to the occupations they are already pursuing, she said. In addition to the Karen, Paranin's project has been introduced to Lahu and Hmong tribal communities in Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son provinces. Paranin's work has been recognised by a string of social development agencies such as the Corrections Department, the Ministry of Justice and others. She was also invited to join a panel of scholars to discuss the topic "Public Policy and Guidelines for the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking" at Kasem Bundit University. Afterwards, she was awarded a plaque for Norwa Jewelry's initiatives in fighting human trafficking and issues related to stateless people in Thailand.

Through her work with Norwa, Paranin discovered how silversmiths in hill tribe communities were being exploited in various ways, one being that their jewellery was not purchased at a fair price. Paranin generally buys their products for five times the price they sell to merchants in Chiang Mai, Lampang and other provinces. "I also reached out to a handful of women's groups in the community, inviting them to attend our classes," she said. "One particular group consisted of prostitutes. At first they thought I was there to coax them into changing their profession. They were rather defensive and did not seem to want to listen to me. When I told them that that was not my intention, they became more open. I did not judge them because I believe society has treated them badly."

Others, however, were far more judgemental. Paranin found it difficult to convince some trainers to teach the women.

"I was taken aback when one trainer told me that he would only agree to teach them if they first had a medical checkup to determine whether they had any contagious diseases. Fortunately, I was able to convince him to conduct classes without telling the woman what he felt about them. "Thai society should take stock of its biased attitudes towards people from less fortunate backgrounds."

Her mantra for helping people is simple: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

"I believe where there is a will there is a way," she went on. "Brainstorm methods you can use to help others and just work from there. Do everything with determination. And don't allow obstacles to stop you from reaching your goal."