Start-Ups For Women

Tin Tin Nyo, BWU chairperson

Women are taking their place in the formal economy. Partners Asia catches up with Tin Tin Nyo, the chairperson of the Burmese Women’s Union (BWU), to discuss the organization’s initiative to increase women’s meaningful participation in economic reform in the country.

Tell us about the work of the Burmese Women’s Union (BWU) over the years.

BWU was founded in 1995, so this coming January will be our 25th anniversary. BWU’s strategy and idea is that women have to stand up, have a voice, and fight for their own rights. In order for women to do that, they need support from the community. We can help with that. We do not discriminate against any ethnic group, any religion, any sexual orientation, or any marital status. We welcome any woman in Burma to become our member.

Our first wave of work was really focused on refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border—capacity building, awareness raising, and income generation for women. We wanted women to stand on their own feet. Our second wave of work focused on issues facing women migrant workers from Burma in Thailand, China, and India. Later, we moved inside Burma. We don’t focus on the cities, where people have more access to information. We focus more on poverty and conflict-affected rural areas.

Partners Asia is excited to be supporting your new training series on Gender and Economics. How did you decide to make this your focus, and where are you offering your workshops?

We chose Bago and Irrawaddy regions and Kayah State, because these areas are affected by conflict in different ways, and women’s participation and involvement in the communities is very strong. They are living in poverty. They want to have their own businesses, and they want to be part of their families’ decision-making.

We decided to do trainings, to give them information and knowledge about economic policies, tax and revenue, marketing systems, fiscal responsibility, fund monitoring, small business management, labor rights, and Burma’s economic situation. Women themselves have to pursue economic justice, but we can provide knowledge and networking. We have completed a 10-day training in Bago with 13 participants who were selected from our target areas and because of their interest in the economic situation.

What can you tell us about the current economy in Burma?

Economic stability and economic development are related to political stability. Burma’s investment policy is not strong, so the economy is exploited. We have to carefully select investment, according to respect for human rights, the environment, and the benefits for the community. The people need to be consulted with. If the people are abused, or if the environment is destroyed, what is the point of investment? The government needs to take responsibility for the long-term sustainability of economic projects.

Have you been able to identify the impact of your Gender and Economics trainings so far?

We have already noticed that the women are starting to question concepts like how taxes are used. They are looking at water shortages and healthcare differently, and how problems with these are related to budgeting and economic policy.

Because of this training, some women have become kind of like watchdogs for the Burmese economic situation. We ask questions like why the price of gasoline is increasing, or what the impact is of enforcing a minimum wage. We read what is happening in neighboring countries, and what their policies are, and how they compare to Burma. We want women to start raising their voices, and ask what is really happening regarding business and the economy in Burma.

One of BWU’s goals is training graduates to become entrepreneurs. What kinds of businesses will they start?

We hope that among our trainees, at least half will start their own initiatives. Some local women already have businesses, but they don’t know how to market their products or do the packaging. Some sell local food—rice, beans. Other women sell betel nut. Some women do sewing and weaving out of their homes, or they want to offer services like laundry or money transferring. In Bago, women pick and sell bamboo shoots. People in Burma love to eat bamboo shoots! But the women don’t have a market, so they get exploited: business people come and buy their products from them very cheaply, and then sell them for much higher prices in the city. We are working to connect them with other women entrepreneurs to help them move forward and learn to sell their products fairly.

What other kinds of empowerment do you hope to see as a result of your focus on Gender and Economics?

Women are always looking up to men, but we want them to appreciate their own power and their own skills. If women are economically empowered, they can escape from domestic violence and other humiliations they face at home and in the community. We want to eliminate all forms of violence against women through economic reform and empowering women. This is a long-term investment. This will contribute to the building of the whole country.