In Myanmar, women work to protect small businesses during COVID-19 pandemic

Date: Friday, May 22, 2020

Originally published by UN Women's regional website for Asia and the Pacific

Public announcements, along with printed posters and public handwashing stations, are among the measures curb the spread COVID-19 in Sittwe. Illustration by UN Women/Lesly Lotha

Like everyone else running small businesses in her community, Myint* has found her income sapped by the COVID-19 pandemic. But, using the business savvy she learned from a UN Women programme, she has a plan to try to recover.

Myint lives in a village in Rakhine state in western Myanmar, and she had been helping support her family by making multipurpose cloth bags at home and selling them in her village and nearby villages and at a market.

But Myint, who is in her 30s, can’t do that anymore. She cannot go to the market nor dares to go into Sittwe town center. She’s scared of getting infected with COVID-19 amid the crowds -- she has heard that it spreads quickly. And as part of virus control measures, the local government has restricted all forms of social gatherings and has encouraged people to stay home.

The streets of Sittwe are empty. Illustration by UN Women/Lesly Lotha

While Myint can continue making her bags at home, now she can’t sell them.

“I cannot send it directly to the local market right now and some of the buyers from Yangon do not order as regularly,” she said.

Her husband, who drives a tuk-tuk, or three-wheeled taxi, also has few customers these days and returns home early to be with their two children, nine and 13, who are on their summer holidays from school. The family lives in a small wood-and-bamboo house.

Myint has been looking for other ways to sell, and thinks going online might be the solution.

“I am exploring the market and thinking about uploading pictures of my products online with the help of my friend, who has been trained in digital marketing as part of UN Women’s programme,” she said. “I don’t think I can make the same income as I made before. I must think about how I, along with the other women, can adapt our small businesses and still make it work.

Myint had started her home business with a small grant from UN Women’s Rakhine Programme that allowed her to get the raw materials for her bags.

As part of the programme, UN Women has been strengthening women’s livelihood skills in the agriculture and cottage industries and women’s knowledge of finances, markets and business development. The programme has helped so far 3,611 conflict affected women living in camps for internally displaced people and in villages in Sittwe, Pauktaw, Ponnagyun and Mrauk-U townships. The women are taught how to make fishing nets, handicrafts and multipurpose bags and knitting, weaving, sewing, and organic dye methods.

Myint and 690 other women received their grants after learning business development through the programme and writing their own business plans.

It also was through the UN Women programme that Myint knew about COVID-19. She and others in an advanced handicraft training, done in collaboration with Finn Church Aid consortium, learned how to lower their risks of getting the virus.

Myint can work from home but the COVID-19 emergency has hurt her sales. Illustration by UN Women/Lesly Lotha

“Together with the rest of UN Agencies operating in Rakhine state, UN Women has focused, early on, on ensuring that its existing programming was adapted in order to respond to the COVID-19 crisis” explained Nicolas Burniat, Country Representative for Myanmar. “This includes contributing to the government efforts to raise public awareness about COVID 19 by ensuring that women not only receive appropriate information about COVID 19 and health and social services but also lead awareness raising initiatives in their communities, supporting the development of guidelines for gender sensitive management of quarantine centers, and supporting initiatives combining livelihood and COVID 19 prevention such as the production of cloth face masks by local women and their distribution to populations at risk”.

UN Women’s Rakhine Programme is a combination of several United Nations joint-projects: the Project for Humanitarian and Development Assistance in Rakhine State (2019-2020), funded by Japan and carried out by UN Women, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the Resident Coordinator’s Office (RCO), the Project for Strengthening Recovery and Development Assistance in Support of Durable Solutions in Rakhine and Kachin States (2020-2021), funded by Japan and carried out by UN Women, UNDP and the RCO, and the Women's Empowerment and Resilient Inclusive Communities in Rakhine (2019-2022) Project, funded by Canada and Germany and carried out by UN Women, UNDP and the RCO.

*Only a first name is being used in this story to protect the identity of the individual