Written by Mary and Heather
Partners Asia contributing writers
In The Face of Change
Through our work with Partners Asia, we met many women in Myanmar and in the Myanmar migrant communities in Thailand. Their presence, inner strength and resilience conveyed a powerful message about their importance in the development of what will hopefully be a new Myanmar society. Mothers, teachers, community organizers, nuns, midwives, entrepreneurs, translators – we were profoundly moved by each of them. Here is a collage of their faces and stories.
LASHIO, MYANMAR We first met Snow (Naw Bwe Khu) in the summer of 2011 in San Francisco as she was completing a U.S. State Department-sponsored tour of the United States. Trained as a nurse, she is the director of Meikswe Myanmar, a community-based NGO in Lashio and a partner of Partners Asia, which focuses on community development through education and health work. She is a dynamic leader and connector, always looking for new ways to solve long-standing community problems such as education for ethnic minorities and sustainable support communities for people living with HIV-AIDS. One of her greatest attributes is her commitment to training new leadership. She is constantly on the lookout for bright up-and-coming young people who have potential that she can nurture. She is a consensus and coalition builder, seeking out ways diverse people can work together.
Nuns in Myanmar play an important role in creating day and residential schools for girls who often do not receive as much encouragement as boys to go to school. Leadership by head nuns in innovative practices such as environmental work and new teacher training techniques are essential to making progress in improving Myanmar’s educational system.
Nuns at the Athula Nunnery have created a community meditation center which provides many forms of assistance, creating savings clubs, preventing violence against women, helping people with mental illness, assisting poor nunneries.
Many of the young girls in these nunneries come from far away ethnic villages to spend a few years at school where they can be safe from violence. When we asked them why they had left their families and come to school, they replied: “I want to learn Burmese so that I can hear and communicate.” “I want to be educated because I want to teach.” “When I go home, I’ll teach my parents Burmese.”
BANGKOK, THAILAND Because of the long history of armed conflict, government oppression, and lack of job opportunities in Myanmar, there are substantial Myanmar migrant communities in Thailand. We first met Treasure in San Francisco and then in Seattle in 2013 where she was attending a leadership training program with the assistance of Partners Asia. While working with Partners Asia, Treasure also works for a Learning Center for Myanmar migrants in northern Bangkok, providing cultural and academic education for children and adults, cajoling parents to send their children to school, and organizing community leaders to improve the lives of Myanmar people in Thailand until they can return home. She has an uncanny power of persuasion, whether it is convincing parents of different ethnic groups to work together for the benefit of all their children, or convincing the Myanmar embassy in Thailand to assist learning centers for Myanmar migrants.
RANONG, THAILAND Leading a workshop in business planning, we met many Myanmar teachers working in migrant learning centers in Ranong, Thailand. These women were resourceful, curious, vivacious, and engaged. Working with their colleagues to understand the intricacies of drafting business plans for enterprises as varied as a trucking company, a one-stop wedding shop, an organic garden, and a guest house.
KYAING TONG, MYANMAR At a small school in the hills outside of Kyaing Tong, the visionary head teacher has established a pre-school with the help of CHEK (Community Health Education Kyaing Tong), another of Partners Asia’s partners. School age girls who might otherwise have to stay home and take care of their younger siblings can now bring the little ones to school with them. The pre-school provides the additional benefits of exposing the small children to Burmese (Myanmar’s national language) at an early age, enabling them to pick it up faster when they begin to learn it formally, as well as helping them develop a habit of going to school early in life.
In a nearby Lahu village, another female teacher supported by CHEK holds extra school sessions on Saturdays for parents and students. The adults learn basic Burmese to improve their language skills, like counting, to assist them in going to market in Kyaing Tong. The children learn reading and writing in their native Lahu language to help them hold on to their cultural heritage.
Daw Angela directs a residence in Kyaing Tong for students from remote ethnic villages so that they can continue their education after primary school. She is teacher, house-mother, mentor, confidant, and an essential encourager to young people to stay in school and get as much education as possible.
Some young women in rural areas are receiving training as midwives to provide villagers more access to medical care. Midwives also provide health education, including birth control.
YANGON, MYANMAR Cynthia works with EduNet, another of Partners Asia’s partners. It is a multi-ethnic group of community organizers working to improve education for the poorest children in Yangon. She runs the Banyan Tree Reading Center in Yangon. The Center reaches out to neighborhood families to encourage parents to use its library and resources to foster a culture of reading and learning among children.
Su Su is also on the staff of EduNet. Her great passion is working to protect young girls from abuse and ensure that the rights of all women and girls are respected. She works as an organizer for EduNet because “only education can break the cycle of poverty.”
Women who are teachers and parent volunteers at monastic and nunnery schools are indispensable to improving education for all children. They cook meals, organize activities, and attend parent meetings whenever possible to help support the schools.
YOUNG WOMEN TAKING THEIR PLACES Young Myanmar women offer tremendous passion and hope for the future of their country. They are learning critical thinking in school, playing soccer, participating in student councils and street theater, and becoming the leaders of tomorrow.
We were so inspired by the determination of each of these women to make her country one in which every child can learn, contribute, and lead a safe and healthy life.