Savings Spare Women From Labor in Burma

By Reuters 10 January 2017

Ma Nwe places a rock the size of a baseball at her feet, then tightens the string holding her bamboo hat in place.

“I can’t risk it falling off,” she explained, squinting in the sun. “It’s only going to get hotter as the day goes on.”

She is one of 20 women building a road on the outskirts of Meiktila, in central Burma. But this isn’t her main job.

Normally Nwe is a farmer who grows rice and sesame. But this year, “the rains destroyed almost everything two months ago.”

Unusually heavy monsoon rains have damaged fields and soil, forcing men to take on seasonal work as miners or builders—often far from home. The burden of maintaining the household, with few resources, falls on women like Nwe, who must look for other sources of income than farming.

“Our soil is so damaged we can’t grow anything at the moment,” Nwe told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “So I had to look for another job.”

Helping communities—and particularly women—face up to increasingly extreme weather is a challenge in many parts of the world. But in Burma, some groups are experimenting with savings groups as a way to give women alternatives to hard labor when crops fail.

Burma is undergoing a road construction boom, after nearly 50 years of economic mismanagement by a military dictatorship left roads in disarray.

“Construction companies are always looking for new workers,” said Nwe. “But the pay is not good, and men earn more than us.”

As a road builder she makes about 3,000 kyats per day (US$2.30), while men earn 3,500 kyats on average, she added.

“Last year we didn’t have enough rain, this year too much,” New said, wiping sweat off her face. “It’s become impossible to know what to expect.”

“Farming allowed me to feed my family, but this job doesn’t,” she said. “And I’d rather be farming as it’s my own business.”

According to George Moo, a program officer at ActionAid Myanmar, a charity that tackles extreme poverty, “women and children are more vulnerable than men to climate change because men have access to more jobs and earn a higher income.”

“So when a disaster strikes, women’s options are more limited than men’s,” he added.

To remedy this, ActionAid Myanmar has helped women set up self-help groups in villages surrounding Meiktila.

The groups aim to enable local women to become more economically stable and independent, so they can avoid being forced onto the roads as day labourers.

The project is part of the Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) program, funded by the British government.

The women meet weekly to make contributions of 1,000 kyats each (US$0.75) to the group’s savings fund, with the savings used to provide revolving loans to group members at low interest rates.

A managing committee of five women rotates every six months to manage the funds.

“There is already a saving tradition in Burma whereby families leave one scoop of rice before they cook to donate to another family later,” said Moo.

“We’re trying to apply this tradition to women’s income—but instead of donating the extra income, you save it for the future.”

The profit from interest on the savings is then used to improve local infrastructure, for example by installing community water wells.

In Mag Yi Cho village, Khin Swe Win, a tiny woman wearing a bright green and blue dress, flicks through the pages of a thick book filled with numbers and names.

It is her turn to sit on the committee of her village’s self-help group.

“When the weather is unpredictable and our crops die, we need to borrow money,” she explained.

“The problem is we normally borrow it from individuals, who charge high interest rates.”

Although her income has fallen by a quarter over the past year as a result of recurring droughts and floods, she said the self-help group has allowed her to get by—“instead of having to build roads like many other women.”

Being part of the group has built her—and other women’s—confidence, she adds.

“Women rarely get to take on leadership roles here, and even when they do they don’t feel confident enough to stay in them for a long time,” she said.

“I feel like this group has established our authority in the village—men now sometimes come to us for advice on how to manage money.”