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by Ma Thanegi

Close family relationships in Myanmar mean that children remain as children totheir parents, even though they themselves may have grown children. Familiesof different generations live together; there is always support and warmth.Daughters are especially close to mothers, and the concept about tensionsbetween the two is a western syndrome not quite understood by the conservative Myanmar women.And when she is alone and with a family, a girl feels most unprotected andvulnerable, although the neighbours may be good.The Women’s Development Association in Wingabar Street, Bahan, is an organization set up by caring women for the protection for girls left to fend forthemselves. “Hand in hand to a better life” is their motto.
It was founded in 1948, led by Daw Khin Hla, then 38 years old and alreadywell known as someone formidable in social and political work, her beauty,intelligence and charm giving additional force to her determination.The premises are still where she first set it up, in a colonial style building donatedby a businessman.This has always been an Non Governmental Organization, one of the manycharitable associations that happened in the country decades before the termNGO became fashionable. The YCDC and the Ministry of Social Welfare helpthem, but with other projects of their own, they could not be as supportive as theywant to be.There is an Executive Committee, whose members are all volunteers. Thepresent Chairperson is Daw Nyunt Nyunt Khin.“We have about 99 women and girls in our family now,” she told MyanmarTimes, “ and they are all homeless or without a family. Some have been here foryears, they feel safe and protected with us.” They are not vagrants, but orphanedor abandoned girls and young women for whom the neighbours and town eldersmade arrangements to be housed by this organization.
The older ones have found a safe niche and would not think of living elsewhere.“The younger ones,” Daw Nyunt Nyunt Tin continued, “are now beingencouraged to work outside, go into the world, but we do that slowly andcarefully. A few are beginning to work for garment factories and we are trulyselective about who they work for.”About forty of the girls attend schools at different levels, primary, middle or high
school, and the university. When the tenth graders need extra tuition, they haveprivate tutors who come to their home, as is usual with any other family. Thosewho are not bent on education learn other skills such as sewing, baking andcooking. The only sources of income for this Association are the sewing industryand the Kindergarten run on the premises where 14 of the girls work.Premier Oil Company has donated a new building for this project so that they canexpand the work. The labour charges of the building are donated by the Ar YoneOo Construction Company, as does the CEC Electrical Company for installingthe electricity. A Japanese foundation has donated a new dormitory for the girls.
The young teachers who work at the day-care centre understandably get veryattached to their charges. Daw Nyunt Nyunt Khin said that ‘their daughters’ havewounds in their hearts, which means they are more vulnerable, so she said theytry to make the girls understand cultural differences when they go out to work forforeign companies.“Even the ordinary people of Myanmar cannot bear others being rude or harsh,so imagine what it can do for our girls. Of course there are culture differences indealing with foreigners, so we also make sure our daughters realise that, but wealso make sure they work for the better type of employer.”
The wounds go deep. One girl who was adopted at two by a childless couple,was left in this home when she was 12 by her ‘parents’ who by then have theirown children. They never came to see her again. She is now 25.“Doesn’t matter,” she said to MT in a tight little voice, which she tried to keepsteady, but could not. “I have others here who love me.”Another young girl was left orphaned and taken in by a kindly neighbour, an oldman. He re-named her ‘Blossom’ so that her future life may bloom. But he wastoo old to earn and his grown sons and daughters insisted the child be givenaway, with the excuse that ‘she brings bad luck.’ Unable to look after her on hisown, he had to give up this girl to the Association.Daw Khin Ohn Nwe, gentle and soft-spoken, is the housemother who worriesand clucks over her charges. The older girls are allowed to go out in pairs forshopping, or to attend tuition classes. When they are late due to rain or a trafficjam, she stands on the front steps and frets until they are home. Every year thewhole household takes a trip, usually in late December. Last year they went toPyay. Sometimes they go to the Shwedagon, or the zoo, or on picnics. Otherthan uniforms they wear to school the girls wear what they wish, or what theyhave. Once a top-ranking movie star, Htet Htet Moe Oo, came to donate piles ofher clothes.
They get enough to eat, but luxuries are out. With lunch or dinner they get onevegetable curry and on some days, meat or eggs. Morning breakfast is usuallyfried rice, but the mothers try to stretch their budget and often give the girlsnoodles, coconut gruel, or other treats. Donors come to give meals for the girls,or clothing, or pocket money.
“What we really want,” Daw Nyunt Nyunt Khin insists, “ is work… we can sew,make cushions, mattresses, curtains. If we can get some other new ideas andinnovations so that the girls can work, all the more better. Rather than charity,we wish to have something done for the girls so that they learn, they can standon their own feet. We love them dearly, but it would be wonderful to see themleading successful lives, with families of their own.”
The mothers wish that the girls would marry decent young men, for they so longto have weddings. But the girls, shy with outsiders, prefer this safe haven theyare reluctant to leave.One of the girls working at a garment factory told Myanmar Times how she oncethought being with a family must be wonderful.“But you know,” she said round-eyed, “I learnt from the friends I made at thefactory about families quarrels, fathers getting drunk, husbands screaming atwives! I feel my life isn’t so bad after all, I get lots of affection from the mothers.”The normal life outside must be truly scary for these girls.
That Sunday, when MT went to see them, it was just after lunch.The older girls sit around in groups, chatting about movies and novels.The younger ones are playing something they call ‘Being a Cat’, chasing eachother with happy shrieks. The older ones briskly tidied up the dining hall.A few pottered about in the garden. Apart from the sheer number of daughters, itis truly a warm close-knit family enjoying themselves on a lazy afternoon.
ADDRESS: 17, Wingabar Street, Bahan Township, Yangon. Ph: 542 925
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