This year, I had the opportunity to visit the Trócaire country office in Yangon, Myanmar. As a Trócaire volunteer for many years, I was hugely looking forward to understanding more about how Trócaire supports people living in poverty in this relatively unknown region. As soon as I stepped into the large, open plan office (barefoot – as is the custom in Myanmar), I immediately felt welcome.
I met with Frances Wallace, head of development programmes in Myanmar, to hear about how Trócaire operates in the country. Programmes here are mainly focused on women’s empowerment, and on land rights, as these are two of the most pressing issues affecting society in Myanmar today.
Empowering women and tackling violence
I found Myanmar generally to be quite a private society, where taboo subjects are often avoided, and where traditions are rarely challenged. It is in this context that I learned that many women in the country experience gender-based violence, especially in areas of conflict and displacement.
Women are also excluded from receiving relevant information related to conflict and peace in these areas- leading to their exclusion from negotiation and decision-making processes. This appears to be widely mirrored in public spheres, with few women reportedly involved in politics and the media.
Of course, changing these social norms requires engaging communities in strategic ways, and over long periods of time, in order to effect real change. In these areas Trócaire is working to empower women by tackling the power imbalances which lie at the heart of gender inequality.
Land rights, conflict and displacement
Land rights is another major issue in Myanmar at the moment, especially in terms of people who have been displaced by conflict. It is estimated that between 2010 and 2017, large-scale land confiscation across the country increased by 170%, and much of this was undertaken for the purposes of large-scale investment programmes for the nation’s economic development.
Many displaced people are now unable to return to their land because procedures and customs are being used in a way that undermines the rights of those displaced by conflict, and restricts their movement. Trócaire is working in conflict affected areas to empower communities to advocate for their rights to land through legal processes. They are also promoting accountability and good governance on issues related to land ownership at the national level.
Overall, my visit to the Yangon office helped me to understand much more about Myanmar society, and why some cultural norms are so persistent. Civil society is still so nascent in Myanmar, that I think NGOs, the government, and society en masse are still trying to figure out what role each will play in the country’s future. I sense that the country is still navigating how to keep the rich Myanmar cultures and traditions alive, while also embracing globalisation, democracy, and human development.
Although progress can be slow, I can see that Trócaire’s work is hugely beneficial to moving the country forward, and on leaving the Yangon office that afternoon in June, I felt hopeful for the future of this beautiful country.
Trócaire’s Christmas Appeal will help to support families who are living in conflict zones around the world like in Myanmar.
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