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WOMEN OF RAKHINE: Knowledge leads to Agency

Knowledge and technology have provided many sectors ways to advance to enhance output and quality of life. Agriculture, for instance, has progressed leaps and bounds as a result of the application of advanced technologies and knowledge. Unfortunately, there are still many rural areas held back by traditional farming practices, which fail to consider emerging challenges like climate change that severely affect yield and quality in unpredictable ways.

Women in Rakhine, one of the poorest regions in Myanmar, are greatly affected not just by traditional farming practices but by gender and economic discrimination. These women are either rice farmers, vegetable growers, or both, and their work runs the gamut from producing to selling their goods. Some of them grow livestock, or fish, while others labor on other people’s farms. But no matter what they do, many women attest to being denied economic services like credit, and many have very little access to productive assets like land, machinery and equipment.

To assuage these challenges, four townships were included in a program aimed at inclusive development and empowerment of women in agriculture. The project, began in July 2018 and ended in March 2019, and covered the townships of Sittwe, Mrauk U, Pauk Taw, and Ponnagyun. These areas were seen to have great potential when it came to the improvement of livelihood and in supporting women to become agents of change, as roughly 23% of the households were headed by women.

Around 54% of the women in the different townships are part of some kind of enterprise involving paddy business, but most are more involved in vegetable production and selling. Many of the women are confident in handling finances in the household but they were hindered by limited social spaces for them to be leaders, and they had very little participation in economic discussions outside of their homes. Even inside their households, the discussions about spending would often be ruled by complexities of whether a man’s top priority, such as buying a tuk-tuk, should take precedence over a woman’s primary priority which would often be centered around buying seeds.

Nonetheless, the women – spouses, daughters, mothers – were still recipients of information vital for their livelihoods prior to the study. Seven in ten households covered allowed women to attend the trainings.

The program demonstrated success in varying degrees when it came to the different goals.

A few project participants who were interviewed said that they did have increased access to productive inputs including high-yielding and stress tolerant rice varieties that came from Japan (IRRI). A woman farmer, U Kyaw Than,  from Mrauk U said that in their village of 140 households they now have one rice mill, one tiller, and one harvester. Some of them have also reported that instead of manually cultivating the fields, they now do it with machines, and this has helped reduce planting time while increasing yields.

The women also attested to an advancement in their knowledge and practices. Some of the lessons that many have reportedly found useful were the salt-egg water soaking technique to separate the good seeds from empty ones; the use of seedbeds or nurseries as opposed to directly seeding in the fields; and the reduced use of commercial fertilizer due to their ability to now produce carbonized rice hulls and use compost and manure as replacements.

U Kyaw Than, a 48 woman who is the head of her household, said that the knowledge she has gained ensured household food security and even a surplus. She also added, "There is knowledge. I think there is overall improvement in general especially in the area of agriculture and farming. But for the animal husbandry, I only know about because of this training. I am able to expand my business. In the past I grow 6 acres, now I rent more farm land to expand farming. I also did the winter crop on my 1 acre land. In 100 bamboo feet (0.75 acre) we get about 200 baskets of rice. We must also invest more in the farm."

With regard to the goal of having higher yield and better income in rice and vegetable production, some of the women said they either continued with the vegetables they were already planting while applying what they learned, while others tried new crops. There was also an increase in rice production. Many of the interviewees attribute their bounty to what they have learned about seed quality, fertilizers, nurseries and applying the knowledge and skills they gained.

Many women proudly talk of how they have spread the information they learned about seed production, vegetable production, and farming systems diversification, to drive a wider change in their farming communities, beyond their own households.

More than half of the nineteen women who were interviewed following the study feel confident about discussing production practices with their husbands, other women farmers, and other members of the community. They also say that they are more at ease in contributing ideas to larger social groups.

A few others also feel that they are now making decisions with their husbands instead of just waiting to be told what to do. Many express that they feel assertive and confident when talking to the leaders of the community because they now know what they need and what they can ask of these people. Daw Kyi Kyi Than, also from Myint Gar, believes that she is now intelligent emotionally, due to improved knowledge from the trainings.

The right kind of know-how and training has truly brought change to the lives of these women in Rakhine. Many of them are still hungry – not for food that they once lacked – but for more knowledge and the technology that they believe will propel them further forward.

As a testament to their change in mindset, Ma Sandar Hlaing, one of the women from Sai Tung village whose household is headed by her daughter said, "Now the family has enough. It depends on us. We can change if we want to. We will not change if we don’t."