In recent months, education in Myanmar has dominated headlines. A new law to reform Myanmar’s outdated education system was introduced, to train students to be critical thinkers and law abiding citizens. But the law has also faced significant criticism for undermining the autonomy of universities and failing to recognise the formation of student and teacher unions.
No doubt, the reform of Myanmar’s formal educational infrastructure is crucial to the county’s development and economic success. Education is more than just classroom based learning, however. The inarguable importance of soft skills and learning through activities such as sport was reinforced to me when I heard about Phyu, a fifteen year-old girl from a rural village in Myanmar’s central plains.
Two hundred families live in her village. The majority are farmers who grow peanuts, rice, sesame seeds and nuts; many of the women and girls weave on the side to earn extra income. Phyu and her mother weave too, while her father depends on seasonal farm labour and occasionally works in a rice mill.
In addition to her formal schooling, Phyu is one of 800 girls across Myanmar who participate in Standard Chartered’s Goal programme, run by Girl Determined. Girl Determined, a local NGO, creates girl ‘circles’ which are weekly, structured after-school peer groups that span two academic years.
In the circles, the girls learn a mix of life skills including financial literacy. The learning is mixed with sports and play-based education.
Girls had no power
Before joining Goal, Phyu wanted to be a boy. In her view, girls had no power. Having learned about her fundamental rights and the importance of exerting her voice, she now values herself as a girl. Indeed, she thinks girls can change the world – they just need to be told what their rights are and how to protect them.
Girls can change the world – they just need to be told what their rights are and how to protect them
Phyu and her friends are learning ways to assert their rights. They plan to approach their community leader, a man, for equal wages and access to education for women in the community. Phyu is optimistic.
She and her fellow circle members are also exploring their potential as leaders in their community. Most recently, they led the donations ceremony at the local monastery and prepared and served the meals to the worshippers. Historically, only boys and men have been allowed to do this.
Shift in attitudes
Witnessing Phyu and her friends take charge has shifted the community’s attitudes to girls. While a few have criticised the girls for overstepping their bounds, most have applauded the girls and acknowledged the need for gender equality.
Phyu credits her confidence and belief in girls to Girl Determined and the Goal programme. Without being taught about her rights and how to communicate effectively, she is sure she’d still be stuck angry and wishing to be a boy.
Asking for what she really wants, planning for her future ambitions, and asserting her leadership abilities are all things she learned outside the classroom, and all things that will help her realise a fuller, happier life. And that’s not only good for Phyu, but her country of Myanmar as well.
This article was first published in Huffington Post on 12 June 2015