Sayama Zawng Naw/ Photo-Hkun Li

A Good Woman

“In general, when people say, ‘a good woman’, they mean someone who doesn’t talk much, stays at home, looks after children, gives birth to children, wears clothes appropriately, is modest - quiet and shy.”

Sayama Zawng Naw doesn’t look convinced as she tells me this.  

The honorific ‘sayama’ is used for female teachers and denotes respect. It was Zawng Naw’s role as a teacher that she believes saved her. After finishing her high school matriculation exam, she volunteered at the local primary school to help children with their studies. Later, when she was attending college away from her village, she came back to visit her home to find it full of soldiers, questioning everyone. They were searching the village and asking if anyone was a stranger; not from the village. Initially, they suspected that Zawng Naw was an outsider – a moment she retells with fear on her face – but suddenly a child ran up, saw her face, and shouted “Sayama! Sayama!” This moment of recognition showed the soldiers she was known, and they freed her without further questions.

Now, Zawng Naw lives in a camp for internally displaced people just outside Myitkyina with her husband and four-year-old son, and extended family. In a situation where women are often excluded from decision-making roles, she spent two years as the ‘shelter-in-charge’ – a role similar to the ten household leader, i.e. representing and speaking for a row of shelters within the camp. Apart from that, she continues to work as a community mobiliser and a study guide – supporting young people with their learning.

“Women taking leadership roles is very important. Women should take leadership in every situation and all different sectors and positions. All my life, leaders in administrative roles in the village,
it was men and men and men. Women can do this too.
As a woman, we should build our capacity more and be leaders, I support this very strongly.”

There are over 105,000 people displaced by violent conflict in Kachin and northern Shan, living in camps or camp-like situations. In 2020, some of these people are facing their ninth year of displacement. The Durable Peace Programme works with communities in Kachin and northern Shan impacted by conflict, supporting them through a wide range of activities aimed at facilitating durable peace and equitable development in Myanmar. The programme especially supports women, both through leadership trainings and workshops, and through practical support, such as early childhood care and development centers, legal advice, and debt relief.

Responding to the skepticism on Zawng Naw’s face when she describes how most people define a ‘good woman’, I ask her how she feels about those expectations – or how she thinks about it differently. She doesn’t need time to think:

“A good woman should be someone who doesn’t oppress others, instead: supporting each other, lifting each other up, helping each other. Do all the good work. Those are, for me, good women.”