Deep-seated patriarchy and years of military rule have kept Myanmar society from the rest of the world. It has also kept the country’s citizens, particularly women, at a distance from each other. Within civic and development sectors, Myanmar’s young women are discovering effective tools for personal and professional growth. In doing so, they are opening the interior and exterior doors of the country.
The development sector, comprised of community-based and non-government organisations, brings ethnically diverse women from town and countryside together in ways that are unprecedented. For some women, this is the first time they are collaborating outside their own social and cultural networks. Together, the women are redefining traditional roles and working alongside each other in pursuit of progress and equality.
The Social Economic Development Network, operated by ActionAid Myanmar, is one such organisation. Based in the central dry zone, SEDN staff work with village-based women to access vocational training and markets for handicrafts. SEDN also supports the creation of social networks that links women to each other and to markets.
Through their involvement with SEDN, the young women are gaining perspectives that transcend ethnic and socio-economic divisions. They are questioning and evaluating their individual experience and their collective experience as women in Myanmar. In a society desperately searching for women leaders in both urban and rural areas, these young women serve as roles models for current and future generations.
Here we profile Myo Myint Myat Htun and May Thinzar Kyaw Soe, two SEDN leaders who reflect on their experience of coming of age and working in a country undergoing a rapid transition.
Myo Myint Myat Htun (MyMy)
“It is difficult to talk about ‘woman’s experience’ in Myanmar,” said SEDN project manager Myo Myint Myat Htun (MyMy). “We are from different backgrounds and different parts of the country. How we grew up, what we experience in the countryside, how we live in town is not the same.”
MyMy, 28, grew up in Pyin Oo Lwin, a charming hill station east of Mandalay. MyMy’s upbringing was stable and secure. Her father owns a construction company and her mother worked at home caring for MyMy and her four sisters. The family was not rich but it did not lack for anything. MyMy and her sisters all went to school and attended university.
Although MyMy enjoyed a tranquil upbringing, the family enjoyed some social pressures. MyMy’s father is Chin and her mother is Kachin, an alliance as unusual today as it was 35 years ago, and the marriage caused strife within the extended family. Neither side approved a cross-cultural marriage. MyMy’s parents persevered and forged a life together based on mutual respect and understanding.
The challenges that MyMy’s parents faced influenced their parenting choices. They did not want their children to face alienation or limitations and actively encouraged their daughters to go to school and university.
“I knew from early on that my family is different,” said MyMy. “My best friend’s father told her not to expect any support from him. He would leave all his money to his sons. Not many families help their daughters go to school. My parents were really different.”
MyMy graduated with a B.Sc. in Geology from Yadanabon University in Mandalay. When a friend suggested working with ADRA, an NGO in Yangon, MyMy submitted her application and was accepted as a staff accountant. A quick learner with good management skills, MyMy quickly moved through the ranks and in 2013 was selected to be a project manager for an SEDN project in Nyaung Oo, near Bagan.
Working with an NGO exposed MyMy to an aspect of Myanmar that she never really knew or understood. In Pakkoku and Myaing townships, where poverty rates are as high as 40 percent, the vast divisions that separate Myanmar society became evident.
“I did not understand poverty before I came here,” MyMy said. “You know that people struggle, but when you know them personally and work with them, you are affected differently than seeing it from a distance,” she said.
“I remember talking to a woman who married someone from another village. When you marry outside your village, then you cannot come back to the village unless the village chief gives you permission. This woman’s mother died and the village chief would not give her permission to come back.”
MyMy recounted this story to demonstrate that it could well have been that of her parents. The rural women with whom MyMy works are culturally obligated to fulfill roles where they have no agency or voice. Without education and an inclusive, supportive social structure, women’s choices are severely limited, MyMy said. “My parents were able to make their own money, so they could support us.” she said. “For the women in the village, they have no money and no say in anything. They have to do whatever others tell them to do.”
“I want to change this. We have to change this,” MyMy said, although she contends that change is a process that requires multiple concurrent changes within social structures and social relationships. “How my parents raised me had a lot to do with who I am today,” she said. In villages and urban areas, it is not simply about access, but more about roles, perceptions and expectations. “The government has a responsibility, but society and women themselves have to think differently,” said MyMy. “And families have to raise their daughters to have confidence and be willing to be independent.”
May thinzar Kyaw soe (TeTe)
“What should I do? What do I want to be?” are not typical questions for Myanmar women. But they are what TeTe asked herself. At the time, TeTe was working as an English language translator for MRTV. With a degree in Library and Information Sciences from East Yangon University, TeTe was restless in her job and decided to leave.
Resigning from a secure job is also not typical for Myanmar women (or men). Yet, in order to get the experience she wanted, that is what TeTe did.
TeTe was born in Saigaing Region and was raised in Lashio, where her father worked for Myanmar Railways. TeTe’s father and mother endured a bitter relationship that created strife and struggle for the family.
“I was very angry with my father for what he did to my mother,” said TeTe. “But I was also angry with my mother for not saying anything,” she said. “My father was a good father, but not a good husband.”
This experience left an indelible mark on TeTe and she committed herself to understanding the dynamics of male-female relationships and to emancipating women from the traditional forms of patriarchy. However, TeTe had no information or awareness on how to accomplish this. Domestic abuse and family dynamics are not discussed openly and even while at university, TeTe did not find any guidance or resources.
An internship at ActionAid was a tremendous opportunity, said TeTe. She received training and began to develop skills in community development and gender training. In the central dry zone, TeTe began to understand the depths of poverty and isolation that village women experience. She also met women who
endured domestic violence in circumstances much worse than that of her own family.
“I have a much better understanding of what it means to be a woman,” TeTe said. “We are caught between culture and religion on one side, and having freedom on the other,” she said. “And, this makes me understand my mother’s choices better.”
TeTe says women in Myanmar have common struggles, but geography, politics, religion and culture keep them segregated and marginalised. “In Myanmar, it is easy to only see what happens to you, and you don’t really know what is happening in other parts (of the country).”
At 23, TeTe is one of SEDN’s youngest program coordinators. She works directly with the village producers to link them to public services, to foster social networks within the community and to access markets. “Making and selling (handicrafts) is the easy part, but changing social behaviour is difficult,” said TeTe.
In her two years with SEDN, TeTe has seen real impact. “They (the village women) are talking more, sharing more openly and are more confident. Before, no one dared to talk.”
TeTe said it is very important for young women to receive an education.
“It gives you more things to think about. When your world opens up, you have more possibility,” she said.
“Even when women struggle, it is difficult for them to leave their situation. They don’t think they have the power or ability to change their own lives. Men, like my own brother and my boyfriend, think that women have to accept who they are. But I don’t believe that. They think my thinking is too big. But I don’t think so. I want to think big.”
PERSPECTIVES FROM THE VILLAGE
The central dry zone is characterised by high rates of female-led households and out-migration. Fear of falling victim to human trafficking is palpable among young women. The lack of established social networks for women outside of their families, coupled with little or no income opportunities, isolates women socially and economically.
For many women, there is little or no access to the outside world. Their perspectives are shaped by family expectations, culture and religion. The Social Economic Development Network (SEDN), operated by ActionAid Myanmar and funded by the Livelihoods and Food Security Trust (LIFT), includes a social business component called the Craft Producer Network (CPN) that provides village-based women with vocational training in sewing,
rattan and weaving. After being trained, women are encouraged to organise themselves into ‘women producer support groups’ (WPSG).
Group members work collectively to produce high quality textiles and handicrafts for tourists. The products are sold at MBoutik, a social business in Nyaung Oo. All of the profits from the sale of the products return to the women producers. Of this amount, 40 per cent is deposited into a collective savings account for the WPSG members. There are 38 women producer support groups, with a total of 400 members, actively producing in Pokkokku and Myaing Townships.
Leaders of the WPSGs, along with government and private sector representatives, have formed a CPN committee that meets regularly to address production and marketing challenges. It is expected that the management of the day-to-day operations of the social business will be turned over to the committee. This holistic model for development creates social links among women and forges a working relationship between the village-based women producers, government officials and private businesses and tourism associations.
Government agencies are enthusiastic about this partnership, because it supports the government’s overall goals of poverty reduction, access to public services and inclusive growth. Businesses are eager to collaborate with producers to meet the demand for high-quality textiles and handicrafts, made from local materials, for the tourist and possible export market. The handmade and social business components of the program also carry considerable market appeal among travellers.
For the village-based women, these networks are unparalleled and transformative. They are developing leadership and entrepreneurial skills and broader social and political awareness.
This Article first appeared in the March 12, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.
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