Gendered Dynamics of Development in Kayah State: land, labour and legacies of war

In late 2018, I find myself staring down at a poppy field in the mountains of Kayah State.

I am here with my Burmese colleague Zin Mar Phyo interviewing women about their perspectives on development and the recent reforms in the country.

We did not set out to speak to female poppy farmers, but I am glad we did: they, like so many of the people we meet on this trip, teaches us a lot about what Myanmar’s transition means for women living in remote, conflict-affected areas.

Over the course of about ten days, Zin Mar Phyo and I traverse Kayah state, occasionally venturing across the border to Shan areas in search for women to talk to.

To our surprise, most of the women we meet present an unusually coherent narrative: most of them do not know about any reforms, and if they do, they think about it in terms of major infrastructure projects that might, or have already, led to them losing access to land.

Yet, from the perspective of donors and the international community, Myanmar was in 2018 on an upwards, if somewhat shaky, trajectory towards successful economic and political development: elections had been held (twice), ceasefire negotiations were taking place with several of the major armed groups, and foreign direct investments had exploded.

Why, then, did these women not know about or experience these reforms in a positive way?

In our research (together with my colleague Elisabeth Olivius) we began to piece together a narrative that pointed to the importance of a war-time gendered division of labour for now restricting women’s opportunities to benefit from post-war reforms.

During the conflict years, the women we met all shared experiences of having to shoulder full responsibility for their family’s survival, as male family members either went into hiding or joined the uprising against the state military. In some villages, women had to feed both the rebel army and the state armed forces.

As a result of these war-time experiences, most of the women we interviewed described feelings of exhaustion, fear, and stress, which still, in 2018, affected these women’s day-to-day lives.

Some women told stories of waking up by nightmares night after night; others could not sit still and eat a meal ‘in case the soldiers come’. Many older women could not speak or read Bamar language: they had been too busy looking after everyone else to go to school. Most had had their schooling interrupted due to persistent fighting.

As one of the poppy farmers explained, “I never went to school, and don’t even understand Burmese, don’t know how to read and write. My mother asked me to take care of the cows and buffalos, so I did that.”

Importantly, while levels of armed violence in Kayah state were in 2018 significantly lower as compared to earlier decades, this gendered division of labour, where women have to somehow ensure their family’s survival with very limited resources, remains.

Worryingly, new land legislation and development projects have made rural women especially vulnerable to new insecurities such as land-grabbing and development-induced displacement.

Everyone we met depended on the land for their livelihood, yet no one owned the land they worked on. Across the state, women who had previous access to land through indirect customary provisions had lost access to land upon the death of their spouses; others had been left waiting for their formal land claims to be verified.

Even though overall poverty rates in Myanmar have decreased since 2015, this is clearly not true for everyone.

Our research found that women’s extensive informal and reproductive labour are today key for sustaining everyday life, yet the time and resources this requires prevents women from partaking in more formal opportunities.

The women we spoke to have therefore not profited from recent reform initiatives that largely privilege the already educated, and those with connections, technical skills and capital.

As this shows, while these rural women were largely unable to inform ongoing reforms and development efforts in the country, their lives are intimately affected by them.

Our research demonstrates the importance of hearing from these women directly and learning from their experiences.

Doing so allows us to better understand how processes of post-war development and reforms actually unfold on the ground, how this is shaped by the gendered legacies of war, and how it can reproduce existing gender inequalities.

The women working in the poppy fields, unable to speak or read Burmese, with no formal land rights, find themselves squeezed between the old and the new Myanmar.

Without education, land rights, or the time, capital and connections needed to benefit from Myanmar’s ‘reform momentum’ (to use the World Bank’s terminology) they find themselves without food, land, and basic rights – without security.

“We still live in fear”, they told us, “until now, the fear has not gone.”

Picture from Zin Mar Phyo