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.