A LIFT Fund-supported Women’s Café becomes a lifeline for a young woman from Hlaing Thar Yar
13 May 2022
As the garment industry has suffered severe disruptions due to the compounded crises, a women’s café provides a safe refuge for women garment workers in Yangon.
The Livelihoods and Food Security Fund (LIFT) is a multi-donor fund managed by the United Nations Office for Projects Services (UNOPS).
Amidst the 2021 health and political crises in Myanmar, Ma Thu* dropped out of high school and started to work in one of over 400 garment factories in Yangon’s industrial zone of Hlaing Thar Yar township to support her family. With the stressful weight of supporting her family, the young woman found support and relief in the Women’s Café, established to provide women garment workers with space for receiving social services and advice.
An active member of the Women’s Cafe for the last five months, Ma Thu is excited to exchange her experience with her peers from other factories who joined Myanmar’s garment industry from villages and towns across Myanmar striving for their first ever taste of financial independence and burdened to support their families back home.
Yet for many of these young women like Ma Thu, the transition from life with parents’ strict guidance and financial support can be fraught with risks and challenges as they can easily fall prey to unscrupulous landlords and supervisors. While income generated by these women is urgently needed to support their families, this opportunity is also a major challenge of dealing with working conditions in the factories.
For Ma Thu, the LIFT Fund-supported Women’s Cafe symbolized a lifeline, and it soon became a place where she could freely talk about her personal issues and also get professional advice. It was a space where she felt safe.
“Once I visited the Cafe, I immediately felt at home,” said Ma Thu, adding that the Women’s Cafe offered her the opportunity to meet her peers, share their experiences, get vocational training and participate in workshops.
The Women’s Cafe was established in 2014 in Hlaing Thar Yar – where many factories are situated – by Myanmar’s first association of garment women workers, as a place where garment workers could relax and enjoy their free time. This included access to magazines, books and different services, like a kitchen and laundry, that otherwise wouldn’t be available due to their low salaries.
In 2019, LIFT and partners launched the "Safe Migration for Decent Work in Peri-urban areas of Yangon (SECURE)" project to support migrant workers – mostly women pouring into Yangon’s garment industry from all across Myanmar – to enhance their knowledge on safe migration, labor rights and gender-based violence (GBV) while gaining competencies and skills for gainful employment. The project uses the Women’s Cafe as a safe haven where women garment workers can meet and talk about their problems at work, learn more about their rights through trainings, games and peer counseling.
Ma Thu’s older sister had been working at a garment factory in Yangon, and she was the sole breadwinner for the family. However, the garment and textile industry faced dramatic disruptions in 2020 and 2021 due to pubic health and political crises and many factories have closed. Ma Thu’s sister was also directly affected by this, making little to no income. Soon, it was Ma Thu’s turn to join her sister as a garment worker in late 2021 to generate more income and support the family.
After having worked for several months as an unskilled worker in a few factories, Ma Thu decided to attend a training course for sewing that was advertised among the workers by a civil society group that visited the factory one day. It was through this training programme that she became aware of the Women’s Café and following her first visit to the Café, Ma Thu felt immediately at home.
“The Women’s Café is a great place for women garment workers. This is where I’ve learned a lot about what I need to apply in my life right now to improve my professional capacity, and about my basic rights. I love the team spirit here and how everyone is so supportive”, explained Ma Thu.
“Meetings at the Women’s Cafe give me motivation to plan my future. I plan to sit the matriculation exam as soon as we can address our family’s economic setbacks. I really recommend other girls from garment factories to attend the Women's Cafe which can provide support in these toughest times and help explore career opportunities”, said Ma Thu.
*Name has been changed to protect the person’s identity