Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Got me thinking about my friend Dory, who moved from his native Zanzibar to Germany and is now an awesome full-time dad to his three kids. He looks after Mudi (9) and the twins Saida and Tariq (3) while his wife Stefanie works full time as a secondary school teacher.
Much as I totally agree that men doing a role traditionally taken by women - that of stay at home parent - really shouldn't be that noteworthy in today's world, I'm still filled with admiration for how hard Dory works and how good-naturedly he takes the teasing from more traditional African males back home about the choice he's made. Some of his friends call him Mzee Matiti ('Mr Tits' in Swahili) implying he'll turn into a woman...
These pics were taken a couple of years ago when the twins were still babies and I went to visit the family in Germany. So much tenderness, fun and dedication in one home. And Dory's bringing up his eldest son Mudi to be a valued part of the team raising the twins - so he'll grow up to be an awesome, caring, generous dad too one day.
Sunday, August 12, 2012
At just 19, Khin Soe is the second youngest ActionAid Fellow in her region of Pakokku, Myanmar. A sturdily built, tomboyish girl with her hair cut in a practical bob, she gives the impression of taking no nonsense from anyone. She lives with her widowed mother, brother and sister in their open-fronted home in Phlan Kan, a village of 200 people. Khin Soe’s house also doubles as a general store, with the front room stacked high with household supplies, soft drinks, beauty products and sacks of sugar and salt. “Anyone can come, at any time of the day” she smiles. “We’re always open!”
Khin Soe’s family fell on hard times when her father, a small farmer, died 10 years ago. The family had relied the sales of the cows he bred and the toddy palm sugar he sold to bring in enough money to educate Khin Soe and her siblings. After her father’s death, Khin Soe’s mother was determined to keep her children in school. Sh piled a tray with cigarettes, soft drinks, snacks and gum, hoisted it onto her head and became a hawker, often walking miles to nearby villages to sell her wares.
“I hated the way people looked at us, so patronisingly, and said ‘We’ll buy this, but only because we feel sorry for you” Khin Soe recalls, tears starting in her eyes. Life was very hard. I had to look after our pigs and cows before I went to school, and I had to follow my mother around all weekend to help her carry the goods she sold. I was only nine years old and I never had time to play. But we were all determined to get an education. My father, even though he wasn’t an educated man, had always told us to study hard. He’d once been to Yangon, the capital, on a trading trip and he saw what education could bring.”
Once Khin Soe left school, she went to live with her aunt in the nearby town of Pakoko. “She ran a farm supplies shop and she wanted me to cook and clean for her. I liked it because at night, she showed me how to use the bookkeeping system, and how to run the accounts of her shop. When I came back to the village, it meant that I could help my mum with the store she’d opened,” she says.
Hungry for more training in something practical, Khin Soe was excited when two of ActionAid’s field assistants came to the village with news of something called a Fellowship program. “They said they would offer training in development,” she says. “I didn’t really know what that involved, but I knew that I wanted to be trained in something. When I had my interview, there were five of us from this village who applied. I was so hoping I’d get it. I even listened to an astrology program on the radio, and it said to offer some burnt plum leaves to the Buddha to bring good luck. So I did it!” she laughs.
“When the field officers came back, they left a message at my house saying I had to be at training at a place quite far away, the very next day” Khin Soe remembers. “We were all in a panic, running around trying to buy soap and other supplies for me to take, and my mum was frantically frying up groundnuts for me to eat on my journey!”
The ActionAid Fellows training program, in its initial stage, consists of an intensive 30-day residential study program. Future fellows are introduced to development concepts like sustainability, gender balance and human rights, and taught skills including data analysis, group facilitation, public speaking and problem solving. Games, role plays, debates and lively discussions between the Fellows and their various trainers are used to make sure that the theories the Fellows learn about are not just jargon, but are given a solid grounding in the reality of life in a Myanmar village.
“My first Fellowship training course lasted a month, and all of us new Fellows got to know each other really well,” says Khin Soe. Once we started learning about development, we began to understand the real reasons why our villages had problems. I remembered my friends and neighbours complaining they’d lost their crops when the pond ran dry – it was too small and shallow and we had to share it between four villages. And there was no clinic in our village, or any of the villages nearby either, so when people got sick they only had traditional healers to turn to for help. The course opened my eyes - obviously I’d always known about all these things, but I just accepted them. I’d never tried to analyse why we had these problems, and what we could do about them.”
Khin Soe was taught that her role as a Fellow was to facilitate group discussions so that everyone could take part in in a five-year action plan for the community. She was taught the skills she needed to enable everyone in the village – even women, children and young people - to participate in the decision making process and make their voice heard.
“As soon as I came back from my first training, I was so inspired” she grins. “I couldn’t wait to start talking to people about all the stuff I’d learned. When I went to the well to fetch water with the other women, I tried to talk to them about gender issues, poverty and development. I even gathered some little kids together – they were the only people I could find – and started telling them about climate change!”
But it wasn’t easy. “My first job was to organise a village meeting” Khin Soe remembers. “Only 30 people came and at first they just said ‘When’s the donation arriving?’ When I told them there was just me, they got annoyed and went away. By the end of my meeting, which I’d prepared so carefully for, I had just five old men left!” She overcame her disappointment and started going door to door, explaining to each family what she was trying to do. It was a long, hard process to win the trust of the community and the village elders, but with the support of the other Fellows in her area and the ActionAid trainers, she slowly succeeded in winning them over.
In just a year and half since she became a Fellow, Khin Soe’s efforts have helped the villagers start a women’s self help group, buy a generator, renovate the road and the water ponds, build a library, a roof for the water tank and a water pipeline, and rid their village of discarded plastic bags. Most importantly, Khin Soe led the creation of a village book, a comprehensive document that details every asset the village has, maps the crops and livestock, infrastructure and transport facilities, identifies the most vulnerable groups such as widows, disabled people and young children, and sets out a detailed five-year action plan for development.
“I organised negotiations for the pond reconstruction with the leaders of four other villages in our area” she says proudly. “Our headman supported me a lot, and helped me get through a hard fifteen days of discussions to reach a consensus everyone was happy with. In th end, even the senior headmen listened to me when I spoke. Now we’ve got a project underway to renovate the pond to benefit all of us.”
“My friends noticed a change in me,” says Khin Soe. “ ‘You’re carrying all of the problems of this village on your head,’ one of them said. ‘Who do you think you are, some kind of superhero?’ But most of them are very envious of me, because their studies are so boring compared with what we Fellows are doing. They couldn’t believe it when they first saw me making a speech in front of the whole village! But it’s just a matter of confidence. Actually, there’s nothing we can’t do...”
Daw May Win Myint is clearly not a woman who scares easily. Petite, yet steely, she has devoted 20 years to the cause of democracy in Myanmar. As a key member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, she’s been arrested numerous times, and spent over 11 years locked up for the crime of ‘youth organisation’.
Yet she freely confesses to feeling ‘extremely nervous’ before the first training session she’d ever received in her life, a course on Women’s Empowerment organised by ActionAid Myanmar in partnership with the British Council.
“I was given responsibility for Women’s Affairs in our opposition party in 1997” she says. “And so Aung San Suu Kyi nominated me personally for the course. But when I arrived I realised was the oldest person there by a long way. I saw all these young women, standing up and doing games, role plays and activities, and I felt so shy.”
“But I resolved to be brave” she goes on. “I swallowed my pride and joined in. And I learnt so much. The course totally changed my attitude to the work I do. Now I see that women’s rights have to be put at the centre of everything. If someone comes to us with an environmental issue, for example, I first ask ‘How will this affect women?’”
The Woman’s Empowerment course is part of a larger project called Women in Public life, designed to give women in Myanmar the tools they need to take part in business, government and politics and the legal system, all areas in which they have traditionally taken second place to men. “We learned how to speak with confidence in public, to use strong body language and hand gestures to make sure our point is heard,” says May Win Myint.
She’s now determined to put her training to good use in her new work as an MP – May Win Myint entered Myanmar’s national parliament in July alongside 41 other representatives of the NLD party, including Aung San Suu Kyi herself. “As soon as I finished the Women’s Empowerment course, I organised for some of the trainers to conduct a session for my colleagues here at the party” she says. “Everyone here has to understand about global women’s rights issues, and how important it is, for example, that we support girls to gain the kinds of skills I learnt on the course. Here in Myanmar, I now see that we need to put women’s empowerment at the centre of everything we do.”
Hle Hle Yee is a high-cheekboned, pretty twenty-nine year old, her neat pink top and flowerly longhi setting off her delicate features. She looks ladylike and chic, even aristocratic. Her parents are prosperous provincial landowners, and she was expected to follow her four brothers and four sisters into the business world. But a high school visit to a local courtroom changed all that.
“We went there on a field trip for our law class” she tells us. “But I was shocked by the way the officials and even the lawyers pushed the poorer people around. They were shouting at them and bullying them, demanding bribes. I saw people looking so frightened and confused - it was so obvious they didn’t have a clue what was going on.”
Hle Hle Yee decided on the spot to become a lawyer. “Actually, I decided that day to be a judge,” she laughs. “I thought, if I was a judge, I could stop this happening!”
It was no momentary whim. Hle Hle Yee went on to gain her legal licence, but overcoming injustice and corruption proved harder than she’d thought. Land grabbing by government officials was rife, and inexperienced as she was, she didn’t have the backup she needed to win her cases.
What she lacked in years, though, it seems she made up in courage. When a cousin of the family was beaten so badly by her husband that she went deaf in one ear, Hle Hle Yee took it upon herself to go to see him. “I told her he couldn’t hit her any more. I told him if he carried on, I’d bring him to the court,” she remembers. Her face breaks into an infectious grin. “He never beat her again after that!”
One day an older female lawyer told her about a woman’s empowerment course being run by ActionAid in partnership with the British Council. She jumped at the chance to enrol. “The boss of my law firm was a man, and he never let me speak up in meetings,” she says. “He made me wash up the coffee cups. I don’t even drink coffee!”
The course taught Hle Hle Yee about the international treaties that protect women’s rights.” Her eyes shine with enthusiasm as she reels off everything she learned. “I truly believed when I heard that, that there could be a space for women to participate in Myanmar society, right up to the highest levels”. What struck her most of all, though, was the realisation of how much the majority of women suffered, just by having no idea of their own legal rights.
“I thought, if I could only just tell a few, those women would tell more women,” she says. The course also taught presentation and training skills, such as how to use strong body language, how to work with a group, and how to speak in public. “I got so much confidence from the teachers,” Hle Hle Yee says. “Straight after the first module of the course, I was inspired. I resigned from my job on the spot and decided to start a free legal advice clinic for women.”
Her boss at the law firm was taken aback. “Who’s been flattering this girl, and telling her to want so many things?” he protested. Even her parents, always proud to have a lawyer in the family, asked her why she would give up a position in a private firm in favour of something that wouldn’t pay. “But I told them my new work was more important than money,” she says. She’s roped in no less than 10 friends and associates to help her, and proudly shows off a stack of business cards printed with the special advice line phone number she’s set up.
It was nerve-wracking at first, she says, turning up on her own to train groups of people about gender violence and sexual harassment law. And simply telling women about their rights in law doesn’t solve the problems they face from apathetic or downright hostile police and corrupt courts.
“Often, the police just say it’s a domestic matter and won’t take it seriously. If a woman takes a man to court, male judges often dismiss the case,” she says. But she won’t give up. “The other day I was in the street in a poorer area of Yangon and I saw a woman, holding up her hands in front of a man, begging on her knees,” she remembers, grimacing in disgust. “I always feel it’s my responsibility to change things like that.”
Hle Hle Yee’s group has advised the organisers of anti-harassment campaigns, such as Whistle For Help, which fights sexual harassment on public transport. “They hand out flyers and whistles at bus stops, and women blow the whistles if someone tries to grope them, which happens often because the buses are very crowded” she explains. “In Myanmar, a lot of men assume women won’t fight back because of fear, ignorance or economic dependence,” she adds. “We want to make men realise they can’t get away with it any more.”
What’s Hle Hle Yee’s aspiration for the future? “I want to see a colourful nation,” she smiles. “Women here wear beautiful bright colours and I want to see those colours everywhere. In parliament, the men wear white only. I want to see our parliament in colour now!”
Bicycle bells shrill as old men negotiate their way down the street, weaving between giggling girls and kids scurrying home with their family dinner in a plastic bag. When a sudden rainstorm begins, everyone scrambles to cover their market stalls with plastic sheeting. The waiters form teams to frantically crank the awnings out over their diners' heads. Then everyone sits back to enjoy the cool, fresh smell of the rain and observe the colourful umbrellas of passersby. As the night wears on, the street gradually empties out, until there's no-one much around but a group of boys playing chinlone with a bamboo ball and a fat man on a bicycle flexing his muscles for the camera.
Monday, October 3, 2011
I enjoyed this short doco about a skateboard project in Kabul:
and it reminded me a of a great similar skate project in Zululand, South Africa, Indigo Skate Camp, that I photographed a few years ago:
You can find out more at: