• Amara learns sewing skills at the Muslim community centre in Mae Sot, Tak Province.(Photo/UN Women/Stephanie Simcox)
  • Aye [real name withheld] would like the agencies to help find her retailers or distributors.

Standing in the shadows

big read January 21, 2019 01:00

By Jintana Panyaarvudh
The Nation
Mae Sot

18,066 Viewed

How a low-key UN-assisted project funded by the Canadians and Japanese is helping undocumented Muslim women earn a living



WHEN SHE was growing up, Amara (surname withheld), a Myanmar Muslim woman born in Tak’s Mae Sot District, never thought she could have a proper career and earn a living until fate dictated otherwise and she was able to attend a United Nations agency’s vocational training programme. 

Amara lives in Thailand but has no legal status or documentation. Three years ago she landed a job at a Bangkok department store using an ID card belonging to someone else. After her husband left her, she returned to her parents’ home in a Muslim community in the Thai-Myanmar border district.

She recently finished a three-day training course in basic sewing and now knows exactly what she wants to do. 

Aye [real name withheld] would like the agencies to help find her retailers or distributors.

“Now I want to save money to buy a sewing machine so I can stitch as many longyi [a sheet of cloth similar to a sarong widely worn in Myanmar] as I can. I want to study fashion design and become a fashion designer,” says the 23-year-old.

She adds that she is very grateful for the training, which has helped her look for work. Without it, she explains, she would have to pay around Bt300-Bt350 simply to learn.

“And sometimes they won’t teach me until I know how to sew,” she continues, her eyes brimming with tears. 

Amara is just one of thousands of Muslim Myanmar women who were born in or have settled in Thailand but who have failed to get the legal status and documents that would make it possible to work. 

The training scheme she attended is part of the Promoting Gender and Anti-Trafficking in Migration project, a joint programme of UN Women and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime [UNODC] to prevent and mitigate the impacts of trafficking and transnational crime through women’s empowerment in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region and to build the capacity of law enforcement to address vulnerable populations. The programme is supported by the governments of Japan and Canada. 

Canada’s ambassador to Thailand Donica Pottie, second right, Julien Garsany, deputy regional director of UNODC, third right, and the First Secretary of the Japanese Embassy to Thailand Mami Ueno, fourth right, during their recent discussion with women in the Muslim community.

The project, which was launched in 2018, works in border communities like Mae Sot to provide assistance to survivors of trafficking and to train those at risk in a range of areas including job skills development and to raise their awareness on the differences between safe and unsafe migration. 

Situated approximately 7km from the border with Myanmar, Mae Sot is one of the transit and destination hubs for migrants from Myanmar seeking economic opportunities. 

Some 6,000 Myanmar Muslims, half of whom are women, have lived in the Muslim community for more than three generations. Ninety per cent of them are stateless, neither recognised by the Myanmar government nor the Thai government, according to UN Women. Most are irregular migrants working in low-skilled jobs, driven to leave their homes because of poverty and indebtedness. 

Anna-Karin Jatfors, acting regional director of UN Women for Asia and the Pacific looks at two Myanmar Muslim women making clothes.

“When people are without legal status, they are easily taken advantage of by their employers. They tend to accept lower wages, and they are scared of reporting any abuses to local authorities,” says Ampika Saibouyai, director of Rights Beyond Borders, an NGO operating in Mae Sot and UN Women’s partner.

For this reason, they are always looking for a better job opportunity and this is what makes the traffickers’ offers so appealing, she continues. 

“Women and girls are at even greater risk due to the growing sex industry in the area,” she adds.

The vocational training is held at the Muslim community centre where groups of women take turns to study sewing skills and learn about the difference between safe and unsafe migration. 

Having a skill, Ampika explains, helps prevent them from becoming potential victims of trafficking and other forms of exploitation while also improving their living conditions. “They will be able to work at a garment factory or run a small sewing shop from home,” Ampika says. 

For example, before attending the training, the average wage is between Bt80 and Bt100 per day. After the training that can increase to Bt200 per day, according to Ampika.

Ampika, who has worked with the community for seven years, says little to no progress has been made in the living conditions of Myanmar migrants in the community because the Thai government thinks they might be linked to the Rohingya people and therefore has done nothing to help them. 

Last week, Canadian Ambassador to Thailand Donica Pottie and the First Secretary of the Japanese Embassy in Thailand Mami Ueno, as well as representatives from the UN Women and UNODC visited the community to witness the training. 

Like other modern females, these Muslim women want to stand on their own two feet and earn a living but they face difficulties in looking for work and a lack of awareness makes community members particularly vulnerable. Their biggest concern is living without legal status and the resulting unfair treatment they inevitably suffer. 

Mya [real name withheld], 66, says she wants to get a job and earn more money to support her family but her lack of legal documents makes that impossible. 

“We also face another restriction; even if we get a work permit we can only do one job with one employer,” says Mya, who moved from Myawaddy in southeastern Myanmar to Mae Sot 22 years ago.

“That’s not enough to feed my family. I cannot help them have a better life,” she says, the despair obvious in her voice. 

Aye [real name withheld] would like the agencies to help find her retailers or distributors so that she can sell her products and generate enough money to help her husband raise their family of six. 

Her husband is a worker in the district and earns Bt250 a day, which she says is not enough. 

“I now have the skills [to sew clothes] but I cannot make money using those skills. I don’t know how or where I can sell them,” says the 39-year-old, who has lived in the community since she was nine.

Their stories and their plight touched the visitors.

 “The women we met today have real courage. They know what the issues are and where they want to be,” Ambassador Pottie tells The Nation. “I believe that women who come together can make a difference for themselves and their families,” she adds. 

The ambassador hopes that they will continue to work together, saying that she believes the project makes them all stronger and that with UN Women and funding support from donors, they can achieve tangible results. 

However, she is quick to acknowledge that the main stumbling block remains their lack of status and thus rights and cautions that a quick result is not in sight. 

“We just have to continue to try to look for solutions and to find ways to encourage and support the efforts of the government of Thailand to help regularise their situation,” she says. 

Noting that Thailand is faced with an ageing workforce and will therefore be increasingly reliant on migrant labour, she points out that these small groups, most of whom have lived in Thailand for decades, could well provide the answer. 

“Some of Thailand’s interests and these women’s interests are the same. They want work, Thailand needs workers. But we’ll have to wait and see,” Pottie says.

Anna-Karin Jatfors, acting regional director of UN Women for Asia and the Pacific, says that the community is a good example for women empowerment.

“When women have skills, when they have knowledge, they have ways to earn a living. They also feel more confident and they can empower women within their communities,” she tells The Nation, noting that the training is particularly useful in helping younger women find work and increase their incomes.

“So, for me, it is quite heartening to see that this is not just training for now, but it really strengthens young people to improve their lives. Ultimately this is what the project is all about,” she explains.

However, Jatfors points out that empowerment is not an overnight process but is something that happens over years.

“I hope we will be able to continue this support to these types of community organisations for the longer term,” she says.