“I was born in the Year of Chicken, so I’’m said to be very hard-working, kind-hearted, easy-going and honest. I totally believe in the horoscope.”

Cao Thi The, 43, is one of the 25 members of the Kim Thanh Handicraft Cooperative in Hai Duong province, in the Red River Delta of northern Vietnam. She married in 2001 and her son was born a year later, but he had a heart problem and her husband left her for another woman when her son was just seven months old.

Working as a farmer, supplementing her meagre income with work as a hired labourer, she was always living hand to mouth, unable to even dream of affording the surgery doctors say her son needs. But since she joined the cooperative, which makes garments, textiles and handicrafts, her life has been getting better. “Thanks to the project I also got a bicycle which makes my traveling to work much easier,” she said.

The real value of the cooperative, she says, is the sense of community and belonging it gives. “I have a great time chatting with my friends, sharing our personal and working experience,” she said. “Recently, I had surgery and I had to stay in the hospital for ten days during the harvest season but I was so moved that all of the members in the cooperative also shared the housework and farming work with me. I was crying when I saw the big pile of paddy rice resting in my house. My hardships and difficulties fade away when I see them in the cooperative.”

Originally established as a production group in 2008 by Gruppo Trentino di Volontariato (GTV), Vietnam Handicraft Research and Promotion Center (HRPC) and the Hai Duong Provincial Women’s Union, the Kim Thanh Handicraft Cooperative was officially founded in 2011. The cooperative’s crafts mix traditional elements and contemporary designs, using techniques like hand embroidery and natural dyeing. As well as producing crafts like embroidered handbags, hemp cushion covers and linen purses, it provides vocational training, with the aim of supporting the economic and social inclusion of vulnerable and disadvantaged women while promoting traditional Vietnamese handicrafts in Vietnam and abroad.

“The cooperative provides jobs for poor women and creates flexible working hours suitable for the different needs of the women who live in the rural areas in Vietnam,” said the cooperative’s president, Nguy?n Th? Th?ng.

Cooperative member and sewer Doan Thi Anh, 37, for example, has a 4-year-old daughter. “Working here is very flexible for me and I have time to take care of her, as I do not have anybody who can help me” Th?ng says they want to make it a social cooperative, where all the women make the decisions and feel responsibility and ownership. “We consider it as our common house where we can share both happiness and sadness in our life. The cooperative is our second home.”

Doan Thi Anh agrees: “I am infected by Agent Orange, which made my face change in form so I always felt unconfident about that. It was really hard for me to work in a company where everyone considered me an abnormal person.”

“Here we are all women who come from different backgrounds, no one’s similar to the others but once we gather we feel very happy. This is not just a workplace for us but also a place where we can help, comfort and share happiness one to another.”