Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Building gender equality in Myanmar

Women take the lead in Myanmar agricultural research

Aye Sandar Phyo and Soe Soe Htway. Photo: Reianne Quilloy (from IRRI)

Aye Sandar Phyo and Soe Soe Htway are used to being mistaken for each other.

Apart from looking alike, the close friends spend most of their working days together, and can’t help finishing each other’s sentences when talking about their research, a subject for which they share an equal passion.

And they are not alone when it comes to enjoying their working environment: they are just two of a large and sprawling network of women who are currently dominating the agricultural research landscape in Myanmar.

In fact, it’s one of the first things that comes up when discussions about the MyFarm research program arise – nearly all of the researchers are women.

MyFarm, a multidisciplinary program jointly funded by the Australian Centre for Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, is made up of five separate projects. Aye and Soe Soe form part of the all-female research team on the MyLife project, a fact that the project’s director, Dr Julian Prior (the only man on a team of 12), insists is entirely serendipitous.

But it’s fairly normal for the women themselves, especially the younger ones who have come of age in a culture where academia is seen as a safe and family-friendly career.

“In the employment tradition of our country, there is a big difference between men and women,” says Aye.

“For example, academic work and research work mostly attracts women - it’s safe work if you have a family, and that’s why there are lots of women participating.”

Aye Sandar Phyo and Soe Soe Htway, researchers with the MyLife project. Photo: Reianne Quilloy (from IRRI)

Dr Romana Roschinsky, a researcher based in Armidale, couldn’t be happier with the arrangements. With a background in livestock and animal breeding, she’s been on the project team for just under one month, but already can feel the difference in atmosphere.

“In the livestock sector, you mostly deal with men,” she says. 

“Throughout my other projects, it was usually just me as a woman there, so this has been very surprising.”

The MyLife project, which aims to improve agricultural development and food security in Myanmar by shifting the focus of research onto farmer decisions and effective farmer extension strategies, has a strong gender component. Dr Roschinsky says having female researchers interview other women makes for some insightful discussions.

Dr Prior says the gender imbalance has little effect on research outputs, but on a day-to-day level it has often been an advantage. 

“At the village level, the women are often quite powerful at a household level, despite some of the rhetoric, but at the village level not,” he says.

“In many of these small poor villages, quite important decisions are made at the village level, so the research we've been doing has focused on this social empowerment of women.”

As the MyFarm program draws to a close, team members from across the projects have long internalised the female-centric makeup of the working environment. Over at the MyPulse project, for example, the several female researchers on the team shrug and roll their eyes at each other when asked about the team dynamics.

Members of the female-dominated MyPulse team. Photo: Reianne Quilloy (from IRRI)

“We’re much better at this – we’re much more patient than the men,” one says, to laughs all round.

But Dr Jayne Curnow, a research programs manager at ACIAR, is more circumspect when talking about the role of women in research in Myanmar.

“I think there's a bit of rhetoric around the presence of female researchers,” she says.

“Certainly, in so many of the young program meetings that I've been to, there is actually an extraordinary number of female researchers around, so I think it's almost a case of visibility. But what we do see is that the senior and the decision-making positions are held by men.”

While gender equity doesn’t appear to be in an issue in the junior ranks of research institutions, it’s the junior ranks that are swelling.

“But then when we look at those that get promoted and end up in the higher levels of government, and in the university, it's often men,” she says.

It’s not all bad news, though. Dr Jenny Hutch, a member of the Dahat Pan livestock project, points out that of the 26 postgraduate students the project has supported, 23 are women. It helps, too, that the rector of Myanmar’s University of Veterinary Science, Dr Mar Mar Win, is both a woman and an important mentor to all those following her lead.

Aye and Soe Soe, meanwhile, are sanguine about their job prospects. Both plan to continue a career in research at higher levels; Aye has already obtained a doctorate, and Soe Soe has discovered a passion for teaching.

She says she often wishes there were more men around to share different perspectives, and, occasionally, she feels unsafe when working alone in an unfamiliar village.

But mostly, both women see their gender as an advantage in working on a project that is essentially about improving people’s lives.

“Because we are women, [farmers and villagers] know we are safe and they can talk freely,” says Soe Soe. 

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