The Myanmar rural women’s network May Doe Kabar was created one year ago, on October 15, International Rural Women’s Day. The journey over the past year has been exciting. We have held talks on gender-based violence across the country, co-developed and launched a mobile phone application, and organised training to help women generate income. We have come a long way and we know we have a long way to go.

May Doe Kabar, established with support from the United Nations Development Programme, brings together more than 22,000 rural women from the Ayeyarwady delta, the central dry zone, and Chin, Kachin, Kayah, Mon, Rakhine and Shan states. These women are members of smaller groups at their community level and carry out village improvement and development projects. The smaller groups come together at the township level, and May Doe Kabar brings together these township-leading groups at the national level.

Since October last year, we have been working together with our members to raise awareness on gender-based violence and domestic violence against women at the community level. In rural areas, sexual harassment and abuse are not properly addressed due to the lack of knowledge among communities. Many rural women and girls don’t know much about women’s rights and legal protections. Moving forward, we need to expand these awareness-raising talks and campaigns in rural areas because there are many women who don’t know about their rights or gender equality.

Being rural women ourselves, we are aware that women who earn their living feel more empowered than those who do not. In rural areas, women do not have regular jobs and many of them are seasonal workers. To address the income challenges of rural women, we have provided vocational training relevant to the local context. For instance, we provided training on how to make brooms, slippers, bamboo hats and other such items. These skills development training sessions helped women earn stable incomes to support their families.

May Doe Kabar is a rural women’s organisation which recognises our members’ desire to be part of modern Myanmar. We were very excited to launch the iWomen – Inspiring Women – mobile application in March this year. This application was developed with the support from UNDP Myanmar. We are so proud of it. Our members helped design it. The application connects rural women from different parts of the country and enables us to share information and experience through technology.

In recent years, more and more people in rural areas have acquired mobile phones, including a good number of our members. However, there are many rural women who do not have mobile phones yet, so we’re now negotiating with a Yangon-based phone company to make available mobile phones in rural areas through an instalment-based payment system.

The leadership of May Doe Kabar keeps in touch via phones and the application, and every three months we have a board of directors meeting where we discuss our members’ needs and generate solutions to address them.

Being a network composed of rural women with generally lower levels of education, we have challenges relating to language. Our counterparts from the UNDP are English-speaking people who don’t speak Myanmar, and we don’t speak English. Even though we have interpreters, we sometimes feel important information may be lost in translation. We feel the language barriers more acutely when we are preparing funding proposals in English. We have had to rely on other people to type our proposals because we did not know how to use a computer.

We are also finding our feet as a national organisation. We have managerial experience at the township level but we lack the experience in managing a national-level organisation. We are constantly improving our managerial, coordination and communication capacities. We have to be very patient when communicating or coordinating with our members. Some of them are in areas where the mobile networks do not work well, making it difficult to send messages to our fellow members from one side of the country to the other. Sometimes it takes about three days to contact our colleagues from villages.

Our biggest challenge is funding. When we established May Doe Kabar in 2015, the Township Leading Groups contributed initial funding of more than K1.55 million (US$1300) for our national program. A limited budget means we cannot expand our program as we’d expected. As a result, while we have set up a small office, it is not equipped and does not have regular staff.

We are now seeking partnership opportunities with local organisations and international funding agencies to expand our activities, particularly capacity development and awareness-raising programs. It’s very important to promote gender equality in rural areas where many women don’t know their rights.

Also, we want to provide more livelihood skills training for women because we believe income stability is an important factor in lifting the lives of women and their families. In addition, it is important to provide rural-urban market linkage training for rural women entrepreneurs.

We want to provide leadership and management training that enables women to become active leaders in their communities. At this moment, some of our fellow members are working as wardens in their local administrative units. We want more female village/ward administrators in Myanmar. By expanding women’s participation in local governance, the voices of rural women are heard by policymakers, and their concerns are addressed properly. In the end, we want to change the negative gender norms – for example, the restriction of women’s participation in community affairs at the community level.

Now we have more members in our organisation. It shows that our organisation is being recognised by more rural women. To maintain this momentum, we need to expand our activities, but financial constraints make this difficult. That’s why we are looking for partnership opportunities with local women’s rights groups and international organisations.

Daw Cho Aye from Kyaikto township, Mon State, is chair of May Doe Kabar, and Daw Hla San Htwe from Kyaiklatt township, Ayeyarwady Region, is vice chair.