Myanmar is a country in transition. After emerging from decades of relative isolation, Myanmar is becoming an important economic actor in Southeast Asia.
With funding from Canada and MCIC (Manitoba Council for International Cooperation), MEDA (Mennonite Economic Development Associates) is implementing a five-year project in Myanmar aimed at increasing women’s participation in the country’s evolving economy and becoming active, respected and empowered economic actors and leaders.
As you know, it is early days for our Myanmar project, Improving Market Opportunities for Women (IMOW). But after a period of dotting i’s and crossing t’s as we built our team and laid our foundation, I am excited that we are beginning the “real work” and seeing areas that, with your generous support, will make a difference for the lives of women in Myanmar.In June, MEDA helped to support the first-ever vegetable and fruit trade fair in Southern Shan state, where I met a woman grower and mango processing operator. Trade fairs are a great way to network and we made many connections, including one with an organic buyer who has since met with our team to explore opportunities. I saw a lot of potential at this fair, but what I didn’t see were many women farmers! So next year, we want to sponsor women to attend the event, raise their profile, and even create an award for best woman farmer of the year. While other organizations may do similar work to us, no one is focused on women, reminding me of MEDA’s unique opportunity in Myanmar.Some of IMOW’s work will also focus on women’s savings group. In one village we visited, the first female politician was just elected (pictured below). She attributes her decision to run to the increased confidence and speaking skills she gained from participating in the savings group. MEDA will be working to help groups like hers go to the next level and encourage even more women to take leadership roles. We hope our efforts in villages in other parts of the country where there are no savings groups at all will result in similar stories of confidence-building and empowerment.
Recently we visited two villages where we heard familiar stories of women’s economic roles in Myanmar: Women share equally in farming, are active in the marketplace, are recognized by men as better price and deal negotiators, and typically handle household finances. Yet the man is still the head of the household and is more visible. He is the one who attends meetings and receives training to build his capacity. He receives invitation to events such as the kind of trade fair we participated in. Women remain behind the scenes. But strongly behind the scenes.Perhaps this G. D. Anderson quote I read just last week sums it up best:“Feminism isn’t about making women stronger. Women are already strong. It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength.”