It was an old village, around 400 years old and quite big with a population of 640 people, but the village had become divided due to a conflict around collecting money for rebuilding the old dilapidated school. A small group of around 30 relatively wealthy households were not willing to pay for the reconstruction of the school, while the remaining 140 poor households were scrambling together whatever they could to get the school building rebuilt even though most of them earned less than 1,000 Kyats per day. So there was a lot of tension and disunity among the villagers from the different social groups.
When I first entered the village the Village leader did not allow me to stay and sent me back.
Actually my old placement village was only half a mile away from this village and when I came back there the villagers warned me about the village leader and said: “you are a young woman and you may be at risk of your personal security if you stay there”. So I came to work in the new village during the daytime but I would go back to the old village and sleep there.
I later learned that the group of richer households had bribed the township authorities to install this person as a village leader and there was no support for him from the majority of villagers. Actually most of the villagers were scared of him as he was physically abusive and the richer people used this to their advantage to control the rest of the villagers. The richer villager even built him a house to make sure he would always do whatever they asked him to do. The leader made himself very unpopular by arbitrarily asking people for money. It could be that you had given birth to a baby or put up a name plate on your house- he always found an excuse for extorting money from the villagers but they were all too scared to file a complaint.
It was clear that it was going to be very tough to work with the village leader who clearly didn’t like me. He would act as a watch dog, when I invited him for meetings he didn’t come but kept watching me and my activities closely and felt very uneasy. He even accused me of being a politician as I was focusing my efforts on getting the women involved and he threatened me a lot. There were no other actors in the village who could stand up to him. If I compare with my old placement village the religious group there was quite strong but here it seemed the village leader controlled everything.
There was a religious group in the village though and I went to meet with them as I realized that I needed some allies before I could start any activities at all. It turned out they didn’t even organize any religious activities as they were too scared. I told the religious group that I would remain neutral in the conflict, that I wouldn’t side with either the rich or the poor and gradually they began to trust me and support me.
Once I had some backing I began to mobilize people into forming a reflect circle for development activities. Finally a group of 39 members was formed. As we were selecting the leaders some women were proposed but the men complained and said that the women should stay at home and cook and that it was not possible to have women in leading roles. After much discussing two women were accepted in the roles of treasurer and accountant. In fact out of the 39 members, 19 were women. It was more the leading positions that were completely out of bounds for women.
As we begun the PRA process the villagers identified many needs linked to transportation of cash crops such as betel and tobacco to the town market. So road construction and bridge construction came up as main priorities. It was decided that the road construction would be the first activity. Each family, rich or poor, had to contribute 10,000 Kyats each for hiring a bulldozer and groups made up of ten households were formed and given the task of cleaning a portion of the road. Even though the poor and the rich households were divided they all contributed to the process.
Once the road construction was done the group decided to proceed with constructing a bridge. Stone and labour was identified as local resources while cement and other construction materials needed to be bought from outside which meant more resources were needed. The group made a proposal to RRDS and received 550,000 Kyats (equivalent to $500 USD) for the materials. So the men set off to town with their motorbikes and bought the materials and from this point onwards the women were totally excluded from the construction process.
In fact the women had started feeling that it was their right and also responsibility to take part of the activities so when the second purchase had to be made from town they demanded that they should go. The men simply laughed at them and asked “How would you get there, you can’t drive a bike, don’t be stupid, we will do it”. The women got really fed up and after getting consent from the group leader to withdraw the money the treasurer and the accountant simple took off one day and went to the town, without waiting for anyone’s permission. In fact it was quite challenging for them. When the men had gone the previous time it was still possible to pass the stream with their bikes but now the land had been cleared for the bridge building and they had to hire 2 different tractors one for each stretch of road to be able to get all the materials back.
When the villagers saw these two women coming back riding the tractor this really encouraged them and they realized that things were really changing. I myself will never forget the image on these two women on the tractor.
The women in the reflect circle grew stronger and started question the men whenever they wanted to withdraw money; they would ask for quotations for purchases and would even double check with the shops to ensure no money was being misused. Other members seeing these strong women were encouraged and also started to raise their voices in the meetings. Even the village leader toned down his bad behavior a bit and started acting more careful around the women. The women, from their side were quite cunning and kept inviting him for tea to have discussions about development projects and trying to get him to understand their perspective.
When the time came to select two volunteers to help out with organizing the community activities it was not just I who were calling for women to be elected. Even the village elders, having seen the progress of the bridge building project wanted to choose women as they realized they were being more responsible. The fellows in the cluster organized a leadership training for all volunteers and then one of them went on to give awareness sessions on leadership to the children of the village as well as tutoring them and raising funds through organizing children’s programs. The other volunteer began making a self initiated study on agricultural techniques in the area and explaining to the reflect circle members about different crops and which season to grow them in and how.
During this time Cyclone Giri hit Northern Rakhine State and I was called away to assist with the emergency response. The volunteers then had to take on a bigger role. When I came back I learned that the volunteer had gone on to hold training on leadership to the villagers as this was in the pre-election period and she really wanted the villagers to understand how to choose a good leader.
Little by little the women are speaking up in the reflect circle meetings and making space for more women to participate in different activities. The men are even starting to accept taking a back seat from time to time as they have also seen that the women are more systematic in their work, which leads to good results.
Another project to deal with water shortage by constructing a small dam got underway and women were fully involved in the whole process. Already water collection has been made easier and now they are looking for funds to be able to draw piped water to the village. The way the women reasoned for this project was really clever, as in the summer when they would have no work on the fields the men would resort to drinking more, and getting more violent, but with increased irrigation the men would be able to work in the fields even during summer which would keep them busy and the women would be able to grow a summer crop as well which would increase their incomes.
As there are some concerns among the fellows of the program coming to an end, the fellows and volunteers met to discuss various options for sustaining the activities. Out of the 12 volunteers in the cluster, 10 are women. The volunteers came up with the idea of pooling funds and buying a camera as a way of making money. After learning how to take photos, the volunteers and all fellows contributed 5,000 Kyats each and bought a camera.
The camera is owned collectively and whenever there is a festival or a school function in one of our villages the volunteers take photos and sell them back to the villagers. For the women, there are still many prohibited places so it is challenging taking photos for example during religious festivals. Sometimes the volunteers call me and ask me to come and help them negotiate access to some place but I stand firm and tell them “If I come once you will always depend on me, we are now living in a century in which men and women have equal rights - Just be strong and do it”.
Now they have overcome their fear of taking photos, and the men have stopped scolding them for going to certain places to take shots. When the volunteers first went to the town to get the photos developed it was a big adventure for them. Many of them had never been to the town before. They have been quite successful in raising money from this activity. Now we all meet regularly every month. The aim of the fund raising is firstly to buy one more camera so that we can cover all events, but after that once we have started saving again the volunteers plan to start a SHG for savings and loans to continue the contribution to development activities in their area.
For women in this area there are so many restrictions. Traditionally women themselves don’t believe they are capable of anything. They have become so used to being told off and despised and even among each other there used to be no support.
But now when I see the women coming forward and take leadership roles in working for their village, it is just an unforgettable experience and I look at their successes with joy in my heart. I think the main reason that things are starting to happen now is that when the women start becoming aware of gender issues and start to see the true nature of their situation they start thinking “unless I do something about the situation no one else is going to do it for me. I better take this chance”. I think since we are starting from such a low point the changes are very significant. But it is gradual change and it takes a lot of awareness raising to both men and women for change to happen. I also think the women have demonstrated their capacity in successfully handling projects and this has really impressed the men.
I have only been in the village nine months and in many ways these have been the hardest months of my life. The disrespect from the village leader has really hurt me and I have cried many times after his threats and accusations. Little by little I am starting to overcome this.
I remain polite to the village leader and visit him frequently even though it is tough to be near him, I offer him tea and try to reason with him on many issues. He has become a little softer. There are many negotiations still to take place but I feel that we are one the right track.
Testimony by ActionAid Myanmar Fellow Khin Lin