Connecting Rural Women, Exchanging Knowledge Across Myanmar

Dec 19, 2014

Daw Thein Aye shares the plan for the Township Leading group she chairs. Her personal story was a source of inspiration for many at the workshop. Photo: Shobhna Decloitre/UNDP

Five years ago she used to walk from house to house, carrying a pot of Mohinga, on her head and calling out to people to buy this popular, traditional Myanmar fish soup eaten for breakfast. For this fourth grade educated Ah Wa Chaung villager from Mawlamyine Kyun township, this was the only means of living.

Over the years she learned new skills, first by soaking up everything she could from other women in her village who had the opportunity to attend trainings, and then by attending various trainings on her own. This, combined with the new experiences she has had through her new knowledge, has transformed her from a shy rural woman to one who makes her own decisions and encourages rural women to “step out from their shells”. Now she is sharing her story at international and national forums and inspiring many rural women like her.

Meet 38 year old Daw Thein Aye. She is the Chairperson of the Sein Lei Ayar Township Leading Group from in Mon State. A Township Leading group is made of members of cluster leading group which itself is a collection of self-reliant groups. The self-reliant groups are village based women’s groups which run community saving schemes and lead activities to improve the lives of women and children.

Daw Thein Aye shared her story at the National Workshop for Township Leading Groups, held in Mandalay from 16 -18 December, where rural women from eight States and Regions of Myanmar were present.

Speaking during a panel discussion, Daw Thein Aye said her horizons expanded when she became a member of a Self-Reliant Group and had the opportunity to learn new things ranging from basic health care to basic accounting.

“I was so eager to learn. When my group members would return from trainings I would listen to what they leant. I wrote everything down and tried to apply them in my life. It was only after being a group member for two years that I too had an opportunity to attend trainings. I knew the importance of sharing after the training, so I wrote down everything I learnt and shared my new knowledge with group members back at my village.”

Daw Thein Aye attended trainings on finance, management and leadership.

“I applied leadership skills to my own life and I could make much progress,” she said.

From a mohinga seller, she progressed to a farmer and entrepreneur – raising ducks and farming rice.

When she broached the idea of farming rice on a piece of land which was only accessible by boat, her husband was not keen on the idea, so she went ahead on her own, seeking assistance from local agriculture officials.

“If I had not developed confidence through my involvement with the village group, I would not have had the confidence to approach local government officials.”

Daw Thein Aye also told the workshop in Mandalay that she recently attended a workshop in Bangkok which brought together women from 14 countries working at the community level.

“At first I was very nervous, and almost wanted to cancel my participation. How could I travel aboard and meet with people with whom I had no language in common? But, I agreed to go and attend. It was a very different experience from what I have had. I learnt many things,” said Daw Thein Aye.

Daw Thein Aye says it is important for rural women from all over Myanmar to link up their smaller groups into a national level group where they could share and learn from each other.

She attributes the changes she has made in her life to the new knowledge that she has gained.

A National Network for Township Leading Groups

At the workshop in Mandalay, the 61 women who attended a three day long national workshop for township leading groups were from different parts of Myanmar but had similar experiences. They came from Mon, Chin, Kachin, Kayah, Magway, Ayerwaddy, Shan and Rakhine.

They recognized that they face common issues, challenges and capacity needs and are eager to work together to bring their experiences, information and resources for mutual benefit. Consequently, all participants agreed to form a National Network for Township Leading Groups.

The National Network would promote rural women’s leadership and “voice” in government policymaking as well as in peace processes. The network would also promote the self-reliance groups and township leading groups to gain broader recognition at the state/regional and national levels from the government, parliaments, private sector and amongst the boarder non government organization community.

Participants in Mandalay also proposed a draft constitution for the National body. As per the draft constitution, the network will be managed by an elected leadership and willingly formed as a registered organization. Each township will be represented on 31 member Steering Committee, with an 11 member working committee selected from the 31. Elections will be held every three years.