Pyapon: In Pictures

One of the things I love about Myanmar is how steeped it is in tradition. Even in Yangon, majority of men and women choose to wear the traditional longyi instead of trousers or skirts and it is common for women to paint their faces with Thanaka, a traditional paste made from tree-bark. In contrast to Bagan, which has been a popular tourist destination for a few years now, Pyapon seemed a few steps removed from outside influence. Hopefully these pictures will do justice in depicting everyday life in this vibrant river-side town:

Life on the river

The ferry departs to go up-river at 7 pm and arrives in Yangon the next morning- at 3 am. Families come prepared for a picnic: tarpaulin carpets, drinks, and food on board!

On the ferry

You can pay to sit on these luxury chairs, but it costs over 1000 Kyats– about the same as the ticket to Yangon.

We decided to try it out…

In addition to carrying people, the ferry helps transport all sorts of fruits, vegetables and seafood up to Yangon. This woman was packing crabs she sells in Yangon.

Crates and crates of duck eggs: this is probably how the eggs that Khin Maw Shwe sells get to Yangon.

Eggs being shipped to Yangon

Woman working at the ubiquitous betel nut stand.

Flower-vendors

And lastly, my favorite: This sugarcane vendor told us he wanted to pose as though he’s looking down the road waiting for customers.

Circular Railway

The trains running on Yangon’s Circular Railway are my alarm clocks in a way. They pass right behind my apartment and wake me up every morning, a reminder that I don’t have a lot of time left in Yangon. One weekend, I decided to finally get on it and cross it off my Myanmar bucket-list.

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Passengers take their shoes off and look out the window. I followed suit. There was so much to see.

IMG_1484I’d heard about a recent government policy that allowed owners of old cars to sell them for scrap. In exchange, the government would give them a permits to import newer, secondhand cars. A colleague of mine had sold his old Mercedes, bought a less expensive car, and then submitted this car instead to the government to receive his import permit. Looking out the train’s window, I discovered where all the old cars go:

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A few stops away and it got more rural…

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Local vegetable market. I made a few friends…

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She was returning from a trip selling vegetables in Yangon:

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And 2.5 hours later, we were back in Platform 7, in the center of Yangon:

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Empowering women in the Delta Region

You probably guessed from the pictures in my previous post… but yes, our team finally took the much-awaited trip to the Delta region last week where we learned about a micro-finance project run by Pact, one of LIFT’s implementing partners. Pact serves over 3000 clients across several villages in the area and ninety-five percent of its clients are women.

Materials used by Pact to train women on different aspects of business development and saving.

The village we visited, called Mawbi, is in the township of Pyapon- about a two and a half hour drive away from Yangon. The township is one of the few that were severely affected by the 2008 cyclone Nargis. A glimpse of the spalm-thatched stilt homes in a relatively mild monsoon is enough to make one understand how precarious livelihoods are in this region. But despite their hardships and perhaps because of it, the women we met in the village were determined to improve their livelihoods and it was heartening to learn about the progress they were making.

A slippery bridge to cross- on the way to Pyapon

The microfinance program run by Pact combines provision of credit for income generation activities with a community savings component that serves as a safety net mechanism to insure against livelihood threats and disasters. The program in the village of Mawbi has twenty-seven credit and savings groups consisting of 4-5 members each. The program allows women to borrow 60,000 Kyats per year to invest in income-generation activities from setting up a small business to raising livestock (that’s around US$68 at the current exchange rate of about 880 Kyats to the dollar). They meet once every two weeks and make payments of 3,360 Kyats (which includes Ks. 2400 payment of the principal, Ks. 600 interest payment, and Ks. 360, which counts towards the savings).

The women meet every two weeks at the local monastery.

One of the women we met was 35-year old Khin Mar Shwe. Her husband worked as a casual laborer, but his income wasn’t enough to support their four children- three daughters (of age 15, 10, and 6) and one 13-year old son. Her eldest daughter had migrated to Yangon a year ago to work and her son had also dropped out of school. The younger daughters were still in school, but the ten-year old was unwell all of last year as a result of which she was in the same grade in kindergarten as her younger sister.

Khin Mar Shwe’s daughters watch as their mother prepares fodder for the ducks

Khin Mar Shwe is quite optimistic however and is hopeful that the extra income she is bringing in will help her younger daughters complete school one day. With the help of the micro-finance program, she is raising eighty ducks, which give her about 40 eggs a day. She told us that the eggs sell for 70 kyats a piece.

Khin Mar Shwe’s ducks

Women’s economic empowerment has been underway in the villages in the Delta as much out of financial necessity as with the help of livelihoods support provided by organizations like LIFT. In the political sphere, however, many stones remain unturned. Of the eight members nominated to the Mawbi village administration, none are women. When asked why it was so, I got responses (from the men, obviously) claiming that women in the village were too busy or that they had little interest in politics generally.

As ironic as such responses sound- given how popular Aung San Suu Kyi is in this constituency—this attitude is quite common all over Myanmar. And it reflects the reality of women’s representation at the national level. The UN Women’s 2012 Inter-Parliamentary Union report ranks Myanmar at 134 out of 143 countries in terms of women’s representation in the lower house of parliament. According to the report, women’s participation in the upper- and lower- houses of parliament in Myanmar were 1.8 percent and 3.5 percent respectively as of January 2012.

But then again, I guess change doesn’t happen overnight. Economic empowerment is definitely a first step in the right direction. And getting women to participate and lead other decision-making groups in the community, as many of LIFT’s implementation partners currently do, is another.

Myanmar Women at Work

My work lately has centered on analyzing data on casual employment in Myanmar. As a result, I’m learning a great deal about women and their economic activities. While I can’t discuss the findings from our survey here (yet), I thought I’d highlight some of the findings of the Integrated Households Living Conditions Assessment (IHLCA-II) from 2009/10. It gives you a sense of where Myanmar women stand in the workforce.

Women in road construction- Delta Region

The “share of women in wage employment” indicator gives a measure of women’s access to the labor market and their integration into the monetary economy. For 2009/10, women’s share in wage employment was 44.7%. The figure was lower among the poor (40.3%) than non-poor (46.7%). Some states had alarmingly low figures: women’s share in wage employment in Chin state was only 21.7%.

Women work alongside men in the fields-        Delta Region

The survey also finds that among economically active women, 47.4% work in agriculture, 13.9% are active in wholesale and retail trade, 10.8 % are active in real estate, renting, and business activities, 7.2% work in manufacturing, and 4.9% work in education.

Women engraving lacquerware mugs- Bagan

Not surprisingly, in many if not all of these sectors, women in Myanmar lag behind men in terms of pay.

Women selling vegetables- Yangon

News from the food security circuit

Last week, a new index on global food security was released by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). The index, sponsored by the chemicals manufacturing firm Dupont, ranks countries on the basis of twenty-five indicators covering three categories: affordability, availability, and quality and safety.

Comparing this new index to the women’s economic opportunity index released earlier this year, the Economist finds a strong link between the two. The correlation coefficient between women’s economic participation and food security is 0.93.

Apparently, “the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that if women had access to the same productive resources as men—better seeds, fertilisers and fungicides—they could increase their yield by 20% to 30%. As women make up 43% of the world’s farmers, this would increase total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5% to 4%, and reduce hunger globally by 12% to 17%, according to the FAO.”

The Economist also notes that “the correlation between food security and EIU’s Democracy Index was only 0.77, a much weaker link than with women’s labour equality. This suggest that what happens in the political sphere is a bit less important than what happens on the social sphere, in terms of food.”

Here’s a screenshot of the scatterplot:

The interactive index also had other interesting findings.

Myanmar is ranked at #78 out of the 105 countries featured in the index. Low per capita income is listed as one of the main challenges for Myanmar in terms of food security. This means that improving people’s livelihoods and focusing on women’s economic empowerment should clearly be a policy priority here. It’s reassuring to know that the various projects LIFT is supporting throughout the country seem to be on the right track and are hopefully contributing towards this goal.

The United States, by the way, is ranked at #1. A little surprising, I thought, given the fact that an estimated 23.5 million Americans live in what are considered food deserts. Makes one wonder what worse challenges the other countries face…

Bagan: In Pictures

A few days ago, I took a weekend trip to Bagan, considered to be one of Myanmar’s greatest architectural treasures. Stretching for miles to the east of the Ayeyarwady River in central Myanmar, the 2000 plus temples that exist in Bagan today number only half of what once stood there. The temperature was in the 40s (degree Celsius), but I decided to forgo offers for guided tours on four wheels and took off instead on a rental bicycle, equipped with my camera, a map, and 3 bottles of water to survive the desert heat. It turned out to be the best way to see the place! The bike saved my life as I got chased out of a temple complex at dawn by two ferocious dogs. It also allowed for a chance encounter, which led to a dinner invitation from a lovely local family. Here are some pictures from my trip:

Dhammayangyi Pahto

Dhammayangyi Pahto

Some of the temples had beautiful murals depicting scenes from Buddha’s life.

Mural inside Sulamani Temple

Mural inside Sulamani Temple

The view from Shwesandaw Paya gives you a sense of the scope of the complex—the temples look like islands drifting on a vast sea of shrubs and trees.

IMG_1644-001The sap of the toddy palm is collected in earthen pots and may be enjoyed as a beverage or turned into jaggery.

Replacing the earthen pots that collect the sap

Replacing the earthen pots that collect the sap

Daw Kyin Kyin manages the finances for her family’s lacquerware workshop.

Daw Kyin Kyin

Daw Kyin Kyin

Over a delicious meal of rice and vegetables, Ko Yi Mon and his family opened my eyes to what daily life is like in New Bagan.

Dinner with the family

Dinner with the family

First Impressions

Hi everyone!

Sorry to keep you waiting well over a week for my first update from the ground. I’ll try to make up for it with more frequent posts now that I’ve settled into Yangon and have access to the ultimate luxury: yes, I have internet in the apartment…well, most of the time.

Sule Paya in the heart of downtown Yangon

Anyway, I’m loving Yangon so far. The downtown area, where I live, is reminiscent of central Kathmandu in its hustle and bustle, especially in the evenings as people rush to get home. The loud, busy streets are lined with vendors offering everything from second-hand kitchen appliances and cell-phone chargers to all sorts of tropical fruits and vegetables. A good portion of the downtown grid is lined with mixed-use buildings of various styles, many dating back to when Myanmar used to be a British colony. Among other enterprises, the streets are peppered with a range of multi-ethnic eateries and places of worship: Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Christian, all within a few steps of each other. Needless to say, I feel lucky for getting to live so close to all the action!

The office itself is a few kilometers north in a more suburban neighborhood by the shores of the beautiful Inya Lake. The trip to and back from work could be better… The busiest roads in Yangon are filled with smoke during rush hour thanks to ancient vehicles (…treasures Yangon shares in common with Kathmandu). But I really can’t complain because it’s a reverse commute, which means it takes me less than 20 minutes to get to work! Plus, I get to pass the Southern entrance of the beautiful Shwedagon Pagoda (pictures to follow soon) every single day and enjoy a glimpse of Yangon’s parks, lakes, and roads lined with abundant greenery.

I wanted to update you all on everything going on at work as well, but looks like it’ll have to wait. Every evening, the internet goes off for a few hours around this time :-/

Thanks for reading. And stay tuned for my next post with updates from work!