YANGON (ILO News) – Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in May 2008, causing more than 130,000 deaths and ravaging the Irrawaddy delta region in what has reportedly been the country’s worst natural disaster.
As often happens in such tragedies, the poor and vulnerable were the worst hit. Among the victims, many women who survived the cyclone suddenly found themselves as the head of their household, and needing to work.
Their predicament struck a chord with Helen Gunthorpe, an infectious disease specialist from California, who spent several years working with rural communities in Myanmar. She wanted to help the women but go beyond humanitarian assistance and do something that would be sustainable, promote international labour standards and empower people.
The organization has three social businesses – Good Sleep, making mosquito nets; Good Night, making citronella candles (used as insect repellent); and Good Job, an industrial sewing training centre.
“These businesses create jobs for vulnerable women and they not only empower them but help whole communities come out of poverty,” explains Cathy Win.
The Good Sleep programme, in particular, employs many women who are living with HIV/AIDS. The mosquito nets they make are sold at commercial rates at shopping centres and supermarkets and to local and international NGOs. The profits are used to sell nets at a subsidised price to villagers in rural communities, who would not otherwise be able to afford them. The citronella candle-making business is run on the same basis, with profits from retail sales funding low-price candles for rural villages.
The training centre is located in the net-making factory and, in addition to industrial sewing skills, the women get trained in financial literacy and learn about worker rights. The centre also helps the women find safe and decent jobs.
More recently, Business Kind set up a garment workers’ co-operative to help women garment workers negotiate for their labour rights.
Back in April, the ILO invited Cathy Win – as a representative of the workers’ co-operative – to Myanmar’s first conference of labour organizations since the freedom of association law was passed last year.
She says one of the main challenges is organising the women. “Workers in the garment sector often work 12-hour days [ed. including over-time] and only have Sundays off. They don’t have time to get together and this is especially important in Myanmar where women are really shy. We need to encourage them, give them space to work together, to develop leadership skills.”
But there’s been “lots of improvement” since last year, in part due to a series of strikes in different factories across the country and in Yangon in particular, says Cathy.
She is now looking ahead. “We’re hoping to get funding for the next two years so we can set up a community centre with a kitchen and a laundry facility, so the women can really have Sundays off.”
And the ambition goes beyond helping women with their household chores. The co-operative has 300 members and Cathy Win is hoping to increase the numbers to ten thousand in the coming years and to start tackling global women’s issues such as the pay gender gap.