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WOMEN OF RAKHINE: Agents of Change

Ma Sandar Hlaing and Daw Thein Phyu are women farmers from Rakhine State, a region situated in the Western coast of Myanmar and known to be one of its poorest areas. Though predominantly agricultural in nature, Rakhine has suffered from hunger, poverty, and a general lack of economic opportunity, leaving around 2.6 million of its 3.4 million population living in poverty.

Ma Sandar Hlaing, in an interview, was open to the fact that she suffered from feelings of depression due to their economic state. Daw Thein Phyu alluded to how people would leave their community because there was no income to be had from farming.

Fifty percent of the women in Rakhine are engaged in some form of agricultural endeavor. Subsistence rice farming and the planting and selling of vegetables are the primary sources of income, while some women also sell firewood, make fish paste, manage livestock, or work as casual laborers lifting baskets or cultivating other farmer’s fields. Despite these livelihood options, poverty has greatly and disproportionately affected women and the roughly 23% of households led by women.

As it stands, the region lacks access to irrigation and other farming machinery. Climate change and seasonal shocks like flooding, cyclones and hailstorms, and droughts often result in loss of harvest by as much as 20 percent. In some cases, women reportedly had to replant two or three times, and this required using up reserves meant to either feed their families or to be planted next season.

Overwhelming food insecurity both in quality and quantity has contributed to Rakhine’s poverty, vulnerability, and the continued marginalization of its women. Despite their active participation in agriculture, women in Rakhine and other farming communities in Myanmar are often viewed as inferior laborers compared to their “physically stronger” male counterparts.

The discrimination against women also extends to finances, where women are viewed as less educated. In the region’s Mrauk U township, casual workers can make as little as 2,000 kyat (around USD 1.40) in a day and are often denied economic services like loans. Women farmers have very little access to micro-financing, micro enterprise development, and other productive assets.

Women in the area also pointed to the fact that while they may be confident in handling their households’ money, they often could not bring this confidence to handling group finances. Their ability to handle finances have often been put into question due to lack of education.  Women were also very hesitant to approach people in power to ask for assistance.

The Inclusive Development and Empowerment of Women in Rakhine State, a program supported by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) and implemented by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), saw immense potential in agriculture as a means to provide livelihood opportunities to the women residing in some townships of Rakhine.

Women received a series of trainings that covered a wide range of topics like entrepreneurial and business skills, high quality rice seed production, marketing strategies, climate smart agricultural production, and diversification of rice‐based farming system. Machines and equipment were also provided, and climate resilient rice varieties were introduced to the townships.

Near the end of the year-long program, UN Women and IRRI interviewed nineteen women farmers who participated. Though some said there was very “little” change in their lives immediately after their trainings because the amount of work remained the same or even increased, most of them have noted a shift in attitude towards how they approach farming both as a means to feed their families and as a business endeavor.

Many of these women now employ techniques that have increased their yield, thereby improving their income and quality of life. Across the region, stress tolerant rice varieties (STRV), which can yield 16 baskets (roughly 20 kilograms / basket) more per acre than the local varieties that produced 71 baskets, were introduced. This type of rice coupled with good management  practices, increased their yield level to 93 baskets (1,944.63 kg) per acre.

Ma Sandar Hlaing recounts how her training has taught her to distinguish good seeds from bad seeds with the simple saltwater method. She says that she now knows that seeds that sink are the ones viable for planting. In the months since acquiring and applying her new knowledge, Hlaing has reported better income. She also believes this has resulted in better family dynamics since she has stopped feeling depressed, her father has stopped drinking, and her family is now generally warmer to each other. She further states that knowing what they know now has been a great improvement.

Daw Thein Phyu, talks about how she has been able to share her knowledge with her husband and her whole family. They have started to plant and harvest according to the knowledge she gleaned from the training. She says she and her husband now make decisions together especially in matters relating to their family and the farm. She said that having machines to help with their water supply saved their time allowing them to get more work done.

Proper use of fertilizer, choosing the right kind of seeds, knowing what vegetables to plant and when, understanding how to negotiate better prices are just some of the practices now being used by these women. Additionally, the machines and seeds that were given to their communities have also increased their productivity.  Though some still experience a certain amount of uncertainty, they do not deny that they see changes either in their home life, in the community or both.

These, along with the knowledge they have acquired, opened up the women of Rakhine to being true agents of change in their communities.