Letter One

What happens when “decorative” women claim space?

In an interview with The Irrawaddy, a newspaper in Myanmar, Salai Isaac Khen talked about the importance of involving Burmese women in conversations about the peace process and economic development. The problem, he underlined, was that people—including the women themselves—consider women “decorative.” They are assumed to have no role in public life. No voice. No agency. Worse, some of them internalize these attitudes by trying to keep themselves and other women on the sidelines.

This Kenan fellowship will allow me to examine the nexus of ethics, gender inequality, economics, policy, and human rights in ways that are meaningful for my own understanding of what it means to live an ethical life. I plan to spend five weeks in rural south-west Myanmar, as a volunteer intern with a project designed to support women’s leadership in the community. An international NGO, Mercy Corps, is supporting the project. It is true that gender issues are important all over the world. I am going to Myanmar because I want to see how gender relations affect a developing country, especially one that for decades was closed off to the outside world. I am also going to Myanmar to get research experience in development.

The National Community Driven Development Project (NCDDP) which, according to the World Bank website, started in 2013 and aims to allow “poor rural communities to benefit from improved access to basic infrastructure” and increase the efficacy of the government’s responses to emergencies. As a data collector and interviewer, I will be particularly interested in how and why women get involved in these NCDDPs, or why they do not. According to a 2014 Myanmar Development Research Institute and The Asia Foundation report, of the more than 16,743 village administrators nationwide in 2012, only 19 were women—only 0.1% of the total.

Where does ethics fit into a world shaped by gender? I believe ethics is the conversation between morality and reality and in a way, it is also the dialogue between history and the present. In Myanmar and around the world, gender dictates divisions of labor, decision-making power, and individual autonomy. But when the status quo of gender inequality inhibits a country’s economic growth and ability to create and maintain peace, how can it be “ethical” to carry on with current norms when the alternative is clearly much better? If the word “decorative” continues to describe women, Myanmar will continue to forgo opportunities on the country-wide and individual levels. When I say ethics, I mean the consideration of doing what is right. I think the main tension in the work I’m doing is the pull between the ethical reasons to make women full citizens and the ethical reasons to respect people’s cultures.

Ethics provides insight into the motivations behind people’s behavior, but it can also hint at deeper insights of how people view the world. To me, the essence of social change is the change in (1) how people perceive the world and (2) how they perceive themselves as actors in it. That is to say that at the heart of social change lies the reshaping of ethical structures. I hope that I will get a deeper look into the complexities that make gender equality an enormous challenge from the women and men I interview in Myanmar.

Probably one of my biggest personal weaknesses is my ability to listen. I am good at arguing because I immediately react to what others say and do. I am confident. In these interviews in the coming weeks, however, my job is not to convince women that they are not fighting hard enough or speaking loud enough for a spot at the negotiating table. Rather, I hope to find out what their experience has been participating in community decision-making, and for many it’s their first time. My job, really, is to listen.

I think we often paint the canvas to describe others’ lives assuming we already know what their picture looks like. But we do not know their stories unless we really listen. I hope I’ll develop a better ear over the course of my interviews so that they can paint their own pictures. Ironically, my position as a researcher is similar to those of men in negotiating circles—we both need to get better at listening to women—to get better at hearing and processing what they have to say. Over the next eight weeks I hope to share with you what I hear. My ears are open.

Letter Two

In Myanmar I am learning that development work causes many firsts for many people. Community-driven development projects create opportunities for communities to grow in several different ways. In some villages, a project it means the first time locals have seen a foreigner, because the country only just recently opened up. For many women, it means the first time they have made decisions for their village. For one man in Thabaung township, it meant realizing that his wife’s voice matters, so he began asking her opinion about things for the first time.

It is also my first time doing real field research. I am learning on the go. For context, I will provide the most important details of the work I am doing. As an intern for Mercy Corps, I am responsible for conducting research to assess women’s participation and leadership in NCDDP projects in about twenty different villages in Thabaung and Kyangin townships. NCDDP, National Community-Driven Development Project, is a World Bank initiative that has been implemented in several countries over the last two decades.

In Myanmar the CDD runs for four cycles: one cycle per year, one project per cycle. The projects that communities decide to create are usually roads, schools, bridges, or water access systems. Although the concrete outcome of the project is infrastructure, CDD is about development. This point is important because CDD aims to build the capacity of communities to grow and improve after the project finishes.

Every committee—the group of people who make decisions about the infrastructure project— has a quota of 50% women, and all the labor done in service of the project (like building a road) must be paid for in equal wages for men and women. Women and men in CDD committees receive gender training about equitable distribution of domestic labor, women’s rights, and equality. The CDD projects and tons of research show that development that prioritizes gender equity and women’s participation is always more sustainable. Getting women at the table doesn’t just help women; it helps everyone.

And this is where my research comes in: do the women and men on CDD committees have the same decision-making power, and have their experiences on the project impacted other parts of their lives? How do they feel about equal participation? Furthermore, it’s becoming clear to me that getting women at the table is not enough; they need confidence and skills to raise their voices. And as they raise their voices, they need to be respected as leaders who make decisions and mobilize communities. I am interviewing two groups of about eight people in each village: the women committee members in the morning and the men committee members in the afternoon. I also talk individually to the committee chairs, any religious leaders, and sometimes non-committee members from the community to get their views on the CDD project. We will visit ten villages in all.

In one Kayin village where we conducted the study, the men on the committee still had a distinct stronghold on decision-making. (Kayin people are part of an ethnic minority in Myanmar; 35% of them, including this village in Thabaung, are Christian.) The men explained that “the woman has a long tongue, and the man has a short tongue.” According to them, the women committee members did most of the talking in meetings. They discussed the sub-project details, procurement, and method of implementation. After the women debated, the men made the final decision. It was fascinating to see how their perception of women had changed in the project—but it only changed so far. Before CDD they never consulted women on community infrastructure projects. Now the men accept women’s participation, but the men still decide what actions to take in the end. How this next step will—or can—occur is still a mystery.

As one woman remarked, though, “the culture will change.” She said it hopefully, in the context of women participating more in public life. It seemed that to her the change was not happening yet—the change was to come. These words made me hesitate. I am uncomfortable with the idea that in order to develop and grow, people need to change their culture. To me, culture is kind of like an intricate, delicate glass structure—a structure developed over centuries and valuable to a particular group of people. As a researcher—especially one concerned with the ethics of intervention in gender issues—I am inclined to tip-toe around culture. I don’t want to influence something I do not understand. But I also know that when women have opportunities, communities’ capacities for development always increase. A shift in gender relations requires a shift in cultural norms.

In a sense, this Kayin’s woman’s reaction to changing her culture was similar to my own. We both tiptoed around it. She did not want to dare to change the culture herself, but she said it “will change” in the future. Perhaps she wants her daughter to have more opportunities than she does. To me, however, it was apparent that the culture around women’s participation was already changing, if slowly. The men let women talk in meetings. The women led the procurement committee, and bargained for the materials to build the road. And perhaps the incremental speed of social change is what makes it frustratingly imperceptible. Being among a society of changing norms is like walking around at dusk and not realizing your eyes are adjusting.

I don’t have a clear idea of what ‘culture’ is. It is customs, language, norms, and practices, but it is also a tacit set of rules about how people should behave. In my mind culture is hard to define, and maybe that’s the point. People define their own culture. Returning to this idea of change, I believe that a positive shift in norms—toward more equity, which does not mean limiting opportunities for men, but rather increasing everyone’s capacity—is a cultural shift. Importantly, though, changing a single piece of the cultural puzzle does not mean renovating the whole structure. We can respect culture while respecting human rights. And I think every member of a community should have the ability to influence their culture—women included.

Letter Three

A man looks out onto the paddy fields from a multi-purpose building, the sub-project in that village.

In one village, when the men committee members met with me in the afternoon, all the village elders and leaders attended. They did not think it important enough to attend the women’s meeting that morning, I suppose. We sat in the biggest room of a large house about ten feet above ground level. (Most of the houses in villages in Myanmar are balanced on stilts: large wooden posts that keep them above the water during flooding. Climate change is a reality, as flooding continues to get worse, and the stilts grow correspondingly.) In the next room over, the women committee members and other community women sat attentively. A green wire mesh separated the two rooms. The wire appeared to crisscross the women’s faces, and those of their toddlers who sat with them. It felt a little bit like a committee meeting they were locked out of, although they had gotten their equivalent discussion meeting that morning.

I think the third or fourth probing question is where I usually begin to learn the most. We get over the humps of what, how, and when, and then we arrive at the fascinating “why.” Consider the following exchanges:
Would you allow your wife to go to leadership training in town for three days? No, because she has to take care of the kids. Would you let her be on the committee instead of you? No, I want my position. Do you want your daughter to be on the committee? Yes, of course.


Why is the building more important than water access? It helps the whole community, and might be used as a school in the future. How would water access help women in the community? They would be able to get water more easily. How much time do they spend getting water each day? At least two hours. Would it be more of a benefit to save women two hours per day than to have a community building? No, because women have always collected water like this; they collect it in their free time.

Though I am doing research, not advocacy work, I cannot keep my own views and opinions of gender separate from the thoughts and reflections I have on my experiences in discussions with community women and men.

Men at a multi-stakeholder review, making decisions and evaluating the process of CDD in Kyangin township. These men are all village tract leaders (a VT leader is a leader of a cohort of villages). There are no women among them because, well, leaders are traditionally men. (The CDD project cannot mandate women’s participation outside the project, so often women don’t have pathways to continue their political involvement outside the project.)

Men at a multi-stakeholder review, making decisions and evaluating the process of CDD in Kyangin township. These men are all village tract leaders (a VT leader is a leader of a cohort of villages). There are no women among them because, well, leaders are traditionally men. (The CDD project cannot mandate women’s participation outside the project, so often women don’t have pathways to continue their political involvement outside the project.)

The idea that women in the future—but not women now—should have opportunities does not make logical sense to me. The invisibility and devaluation of women’s work and women’s time shocks me; two hours of carrying water is not free time. There is some quote that’s been memed a thousand times that I can’t remember word for word. It is about how we should remember that we are doing this work because of the people who did this kind of work before us. It makes us remember that we are standing on the shoulders of women and men who also believed in what we believe, and they did that work standing on others’ shoulders, and so on and so forth. It also puts into perspective the painfully slow arc of change.

But sometimes it just doesn’t seem fair. Women now should have opportunities, not just women in the future. CDD has only been in the townships we’ve been studying for two years, so of course change isn’t happening in a big way just yet. When I think of two years, compared with hundreds of years of women behind, overshadowed, beneath, and ruled by men, then I’m really encouraged by the small steps forward the project has taken in terms of gender equity.

Letter Four

Women are like water

Or perhaps I should say people are like water. Water fills the space that is made for it; it conforms to gravity; it sticks to other water molecules. Without boundaries, without dimensions, water is lost. Water fills the space that is made for it.

Vessels are to water as culture is to people. I wrote about culture in a previous letter; culture is history, culture is behaviour, culture is parenting. Culture is advertisements on city billboards; culture is everyone dying their hair black; culture is the body wash and face cream in every shop broadcasting “extra white,” “super white,” and “lasting white;” culture is history. Culture is generosity; culture is the fwe-fwe kissing sound people make to attract the waiters’ attention in the tea shop; culture is thanaka[1]covered faces of boys and girls and women, but not men (because, as someone explained to me, ‘that would be gay or something’); culture is poverty-stricken villages with gold-clad pagodas; culture is long dollops of condensed milk in cups of milky tea; culture is tying women and men’s longyi[2] differently; culture is marrying someone your family approves of; culture is lurking, waiting, sitting, standing, ready to remind you. Culture is robust like dry bamboo; sometimes the dry wall you are pressed up against feels coarse as you search in the dark for a light switch, and the breath and heat of others around you make the wall seem yet coarser, harder, ungiving.

Culture is walls that move a little when pushed, but in one lifetime seem hardly to move at all. Thinking about people without culture, Christian Ferney (supervisor for Kenan Fellows) commented to me, is like holding water without a vessel. This comment was the impetus for my writing today.

My research has revealed that women fill the space that is made for them. Like water they move into the areas that open for them. When a 50% mandate for women on committees exists, women fill it. When every committee has to have a woman chair, a woman fills the job. But they face a glass ceiling when it comes to other positions that aren’t mandated to include them.

Men are also like water; they, too, conform to culture. They hold leadership space down because they always have, and they’re expected to. Sometimes awareness of a different way of doing things can spark changes. For instance, one village elder said that he’d never thought that women could be village elders, but now that he considered the idea, he would support a woman who wanted to become one. So the vessel—culture, really—can change shape with some input from the outside and prodding from the inside. Maybe, like a crash of white water rapids finding pathways down a mountain, a critical mass of women can also make their own pathways to participation and leadership.

A coffee advertisement in Pathein. CDD is about communities driving their own futures, so it is also about democracy-building, which is new in Myanmar.

A coffee advertisement in Pathein. CDD is about communities driving their own futures, so it is also about democracy-building, which is new in Myanmar.

Maybe I’m going too far with this water metaphor, but I’ve been thinking about water lately in more ways than one. The woman in the picture lives in a village that is completely flooded for two months each year. Everyone in the village moves into the monastery, and the kids miss at least twenty days of school. They get around in boats, and often they run out of food. The floods come every single year; and every year, they say, the water laps a little bit higher up the monastery steps. In Myanmar there is no denial of climate change; they are living through it. Women in villages also often say they want drinking water for their next CDD project. They spend two hours a day fetching water, and longer in the dry season.A woman CDD committee member finished our focus group discussion and met her young son outside, who had just finished his day at school.



A woman CDD committee member finished our focus group discussion and met her young son outside, who had just finished his day at school.

[1] Thanaka is a light yellow paste made from a certain kind of tree that women and children wear on their faces and necks to keep them cool, and to look beautiful.

[2] The traditional sarongs that both women and men wear on their bottom halves. Pants are uncommon.






Letter Five

I am about halfway through my field research. We recently moved from Thabaung township to Kyangin township. The four-hour drive wound through some spectacular parts of the delta region. The young green stems in the rice-paddy fields wriggled as the wind tickled them, and the hills beyond were a dark, solid blue like a Myanmar man’s everyday longyi. As we urged our driver to please slow down, we read through World Bank reports on CDD and domestic violence reports in Myanmar. At five o’clock streams of white-topped, green-trousered school children frolicked on the road side as they walked home, kicking stones and jumping on the backs of bicycles as they went.
We arrived earlier than expected, probably because of our driver’s penchant for speed, so I jumped into some shorts and shoes to take a jog around the town. I run only in straight lines if I can help it, because if I make too many turns I always get lost on the way back. Getting lost means I have to run farther, so I try to make my routes economical. I reached the edge of the small town, crossed over some train tracks, and made my way down a straightaway between the paddy fields. The setting globe to my right threw its hues on the water in the fields. The rice grows in little rectangular plots filled with water, like pools. Everyday someone gets up to tend to them, to hoe them, to press the earth back into the rectangular walls so the pools stay distinct and separate. To my left the air above the fields began to purple like a bruise ripening. The orange globe had dipped beneath my sight and said its final words, the color of tamarind, to the sky above.

Consolidation of ideas—the fun, where mysteries are sometimes solved and sometimes become even more complex. For the first time in my life, I think, I am writing a report about research that I actually did. For the first time I am not writing about others’ writing about stuff; I am actually writing about stuff. The academic way to say this would be that I’ve never been a primary researcher before. It’s hugely fun, but also a big responsibility.

At this halfway point—finishing one of two townships—I am taking a couple of “writing days” to consolidate the findings from Thabaung. It is sort of like pouring all the memories, conversations, and experiences into a scrapbook of words. I organize by heading, writing and writing until I realize I have strayed from the initial topic. I am obsessed with the colors in their stories, all of the individual experiences that make essentialism both dangerous and impossible. In a way, it’s unsuitable to put these people’s experiences under headings, in sections of a report to analyze. It would be more holistic to write short stories about their lives. Because telling stories is messy. Sometimes consolidation of ideas—of women’s common experiences, really—feels like brushing wisps of hair into submission when they really all have their own direction. In this short time, I’ve found that poor, young, and ethnic minority women face particular challenges. Lack of experience. Fear of outsiders. Opportunity cost of social work. To say “women need x” or “women need y” is to treat them as one group, and they are not one. Women are like water, but they are all different. And each deserves a pathway, a story.

Letter Seven

NGOs and the competitive market: What are the ethics of competitive intervention?

I am considering a few different factors as I write the final research report from the gender study in Myanmar, but by far the most perplexing one is thinking about the audience of the report. The audience will likely be a combination of Mercy Corps, the World Bank, and government branches that are implementing the community-driven development project. It may also include individuals or organizations who are doing similar research on women’s role in development more broadly.

There were two aims of my research: the first was for my own ethical questions to see how gender dynamics play out in a country in the middle of sweeping democratic change. The second aim was fulfilling my formal internship for Mercy Corps by collecting data about women on committees in order to influence policy change in the future. Today I am commenting on the latter—the product of which will be a formal report circulated to various audiences.

The research itself was impartial—we hoped to get a clear and truthful story about the experience of women and men in gender-inclusive CDD. But the report is more than a presentation of numbers and statistics on committee turnover rates and education levels of committee members. It is a statement about what the program can do to help women in the future, given the gaps and achievements of the project so far.

But as I learned during several meetings with government, World Bank, and other NGO staff in Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw (Myanmar’s capital), the messages of the research need to be tailored to the audience. For example, the government staff do not want to hear that women are not being “empowered” (which is, in my eyes, a nebulous term at best) by the project. They have put tons of resources into CDD, and they want to see positive results. For other audiences, it seemed like strict adherence to the project guidelines was paramount.

I won’t go into individual details, but I will say that I had no idea just how many moving parts go whizzing around in the world of NGOs, governments, and development work in general. There are hundreds of millions of dollars changing hands. There are multiple actors, stakeholders, and third parties. Governments hold organizations like the World Bank accountable (it is, after all, primarily a bank that lends money to countries). The whole system–which I only briefly glimpsed in only one country–seems to me like a beehive with fifty different queen bees. The workers implement projects for their designated ‘queen’ (whoever they work for), but all the queens also talk among each other. Some are more powerful than others (richer, perhaps), so overall the hierarchies twist and turn and overlap to make the whole picture a noisy, confounding society with not one leader or mission but rather multiple competing interests.

(I now notice that my metaphor is refreshingly matriarchal–I did not actually intend for females to be the decision-makers in my proverbial beehive, but perhaps it is all the better that way…).

If I take a step back to connect the dots, I can say that each queen bee is either a governmental or non-governmental organization. All of them are interested in development. However, they compete with one another. NGOs describe other NGOs as competitors (even if they are not-for-profit). If they all have the same broad goal–what I define loosely as reducing poverty and human suffering–than why must they be rivals?

Adam Smith’s idea that perfect competition produces better outcomes may well apply here. When firms compete, everyone is better off. We get good ideas, increased efficiency, and competitive prices. We get innovation. (We also get inequality.) NGOs, too, compete. Does competition among NGOs (the queen bees, in my example) make everyone better off? Does it enhance development outcomes?

For these questions I have no answers. But the ideas they raise prod me– isn’t it perverse to even talk about “competing” over who gets to contribute to development? Why should we compete for the ability to save or improve lives? This competition isn’t for money or capital–it’s for helping people. Consider this– three different NGOs in a country provide menstrual products to poor rural women. They have the same goals: to increase women and girls’ access to menstrual products so they don’t face disadvantages like being unable to work or go to school periodically. Instead of banding together to provide the same products to everyone, the NGOs differentiate their products and compete with one another.

Why do they compete instead of working together? Maybe each NGO thinks it provides the best product– that, in effect, it is doing development the “right” way. But again, their goal isn’t (or shouldn’t be) to make profits; their goal is to help people. In the end, maybe the competition will create better outcomes. But I can’t help but think that as all these actors spend time competing with one another, there are millions of women who could be developing their small businesses, and girls who could be going to school instead of being married off, and men who could be benefitting from micro-finance or mobile money. Does competition really improve outcomes for development? Or does it waste time and money that could be better spent if everyone worked together?