Women and gender in Dawei

This piece is Part 3 in a three-part series focusing on under-analysed aspects of the Dawei deep-sea port and industrial zone project in southeastern Burma. See here for Part 1, an analysis of the activities of Italian-Thai Development, the project’s lead developer; and see here for Part 2, which looks at the project from a labour perspective.

In a church community centre on the outskirts of Dawei, sunlight filters in through the open windows, throwing long afternoon shadows across the floor. Seated on plastic chairs around a few folding tables, leaders of a Karen women’s CBO discuss their programming, as well as their concerns about gendered impacts from the deep-sea port and industrial zone project. The group has been particularly active with villagers on the east end of the Dawei road link to Thailand. About an hour into the discussion, a few more women join the meeting: leaders of a legal aid network comprising ten young women from the Dawei area, assisting mostly women in the area on various legal issues.[i]

The meeting throws into stark relief a noticeable lack of discussion on women and gender issues in relation to the port and industrial project in Dawei. What, in fact, are the likely gender impacts of the project, and what are women doing to avert those outcomes? And why is it that project discourse has been so silent on gender? To some extent, the scale of the project has generated a keen sense of its vast, far-reaching impacts; but to be widespread is not the same as being uniform, and indeed, project impacts are likely to be very different for women and men. Civil society literature on the project, to be fair, has not been completely absent on gender issues, though one must do a bit of digging to find those discussions. News media, on the other hand, has been almost completely gender-absent.

Part of the explanation for a generalized gender silence is likely that, for groups working elsewhere in the Mekong region as well, teasing out the gendered implications of large-scale industrial and infrastructure projects does not always come easily. A whole range of other issues – e.g. environmental, economic, land-related – come to occupy the analytical foreground fairly quickly, as infrastructure issues like road networks, or trade and investment issues like regional economic integration, are not, generally, considered to be ‘gender issues’ foremost. So a certain amount of discursive reconfiguration becomes necessary to problematize these kinds of projects from a gender standpoint, whereas little such work is necessary to do so from, say, an environmental perspective. Further, for many large-scale projects, NGOs and CBOs have become skilled at working with news media and other actors to project their analysis of an initiative, often against analyses from governments or the private sector. Given that leadership positions in these organizations remain largely male-dominated, there is a tendency for gender issues to become secondary, if they are included at all, in such analyses.[ii]

Still, women-led Karen CBOs and church networks in the Dawei area have not been waiting for outside recognition. Particularly with villagers affected by the road link project component, and certainly not only with women villagers, these organizations have been doing important local-level work. They’ve been leading community participatory research around project impacts (including community mapping of land holdings), supporting citizen journalism-style documentation work in remote areas, running trainings on the environment and land rights, hosting English classes and other classes in their community centres, and arranging for scholarships to support young people in these areas. This work has involved close networking with the women’s legal aid network noted above, as well as a host of other actors in the area, including NGOs, other CBO networks, and local government officials.

Through their various activities, these organizations have begun to call attention to a number of concerns related to women’s and gender issues in the area. Gendered wage hierarchies have been one area of concern, whereby better-paying jobs go to men and lower-paying jobs to women, while these groups note as well that sometimes women are paid less than men for the same work. In addition, and not unrelated, livelihood effects from the project are not the same for men and women; differential effects in this area are being watched closely. In terms of displacement issues, women activists note that a lack of transparency in compensation processes has meant, in practice, that individuals who are essentially louder, or simply better-connected, have secured better compensation. This dynamic disadvantages women, who – according to women activists and community leaders in the Dawei area – may be less likely than men to insist or speak out on compensation issues. Local women’s leaders also stress that, in relation to compensation and a host of other issues, women’s prior knowledge of relevant matters will probably also be less than men’s. Without this kind of knowledge, standing up to claim one’s rights, or the rights of a community, becomes a more daunting task.

To some degree, concerns identified by women leaders in the Dawei area have been amplified by organizations based in Rangoon. In a brief set of discussion points on gender in Dawei compiled by the Gender Equality Network (GEN),[iii] a network of local and international NGOs and CSOs who are active on gender issues in Burma, potential gendered impacts in Dawei are considered in reference to gender issues in comparable areas – in special economic zones (SEZs), for example, and in extractive industries and export sectors. Since elements of all of these are included in the Dawei project, they help shed light on what to expect for gendered impacts in Dawei. The GEN paper notes, for example, that in SEZs elsewhere, despite women often constituting the vast majority of the labour force, ‘there are often disparities between men and women with regard to hiring practices, wages, benefits, and employment and training opportunities.’ In terms of lessons from export sectors, the paper highlights the prevalence of gendered wage hierarchies in Burma’s export industries, lack of job security in ‘low-skilled’ positions dominated by women, and differential labour mobility when women are expected to balance family responsibilities. In extractive industries, meanwhile, formal employment and impact compensation are more likely to go to men than women, ‘while the costs, including family and social disruption, and environmental degradation, fall most heavily on women’ (GEN 2012: 1).

In many ways, of course, the GEN paper – to date, possibly the only document that focuses directly on gender issues in the context of the Dawei project – is (unfortunately) spot-on in its analysis. In thoroughly liberalized export-oriented economies, in which SEZs are often a major vehicle for capturing and maintaining foreign direct investment (FDI), women workers face gendered hierarchies, and wages and working conditions, that locate them in the most precarious positions in factories and other workplaces. Indeed, the race to the bottom in Asia is largely the story of the erosion of women’s labour rights, as women account for a vast majority of Asia’s export-oriented factory labour forces. In Thailand, for example, the rise of labour-intensive factory production and linkages to global supply chains coincided with the feminization of the most precarious positions in labour hierarchies throughout the economy, setting the stage for clearly (and severely) gender-differentiated impacts in the early stages of the downturn that began in late 2008 (cf. Pollock and Aung 2011).

It is important to recognize, however, that the direction of the Dawei project differs in key respects from Shenzhen-style SEZs, however much Shenzhen may have been a point of reference for Burmese policymakers supporting the Dawei project.[iv] Foremost, as noted in Part 2 of this series, the industrial zone in Dawei will include some limited light industry, but the emphasis is very much on middle and heavy industries, which while linking to extractive industries and export networks, will not be labour-intensive – nor highly feminized – in the way that classic SEZs in the style of Shenzhen certainly are. Rather, there is reason to believe that, on balance, the Dawei project as a whole – that is, including its reservoir and road link components – will be labour-shedding rather than employment-generating, as the ‘farm to factory transition’ fails to hold: local people are already losing substantial pieces of land and related livelihoods, but the project’s lack of labour-intensive industry means only small portions of newly landless workers will be absorbed into the project (cf. Li 2011).

In fact, for indications of potential gendered impacts from the project, rather than looking to SEZs and the extractive-export nexus, researchers and scholars might more fruitfully turn to working conditions in informal economies. Rendered landless through project-related land concessions, and without viable employment opportunities through the project itself, a resulting surplus population will likely need to find its way in an expansion of informal economies in the area. This informalization dynamic has been known to produce very gender-differentiated impacts.

According to Martha Chen, a leading expert on informal economies, there exists a strong linkage between gender and poverty in the informal sector, as well as gender and vulnerability. Chen highlights that women in the informal sector tend to be own-account traders and producers, or casual and subcontract workers – as opposed to being employers who hire workers for pay. She also notes that even within the same trade, women and men are often engaged in different activities: men tend towards larger operations dealing in non-food items, while women tend to work in smaller operations dealing with food. Meanwhile, while average incomes are lower for both women and men in the informal sector, the gendered wage gap is higher in the informal sector than in the formal sector; and segmentations of the informal sector tend to find men in positions of comparatively high wages (as informal employers or, moving down the hierarchy, informal employees), while women are a strong majority in occupations with lower wages (at the bottom of the hierarchy, as casual wage workers or industrial outworkers/homeworkers) (Chen nd and Chen 2007, cited in Arnold and Aung 9, 43-44).

In the Mekong region, researchers and scholars note as well that, with a scaling up of trade and investment in a given area, economic spaces in which women predominate – such as small-scale trading through informal networks, or even certain roles within rural smallholder farming operations – tend to become narrower or more restricted, driving women’s descent down labour hierarchies to increasingly precarious occupations (Kusukabe 2008, Mekong Migration Network 2012 [forthcoming]). This trend has been identified as being of particular concern where border economic zones (BEZs) in Mekong countries are reorganizing trade and production in rural areas in ways that favour larger-scale actors, closing down spaces where, sometimes over generations, women have worked hard to carve out trade niches for themselves.

While the Dawei project is not a textbook BEZ in the way of economic zones in Myawaddy and Mae Sot on the Thai-Burma border, or other BEZs on the peripheries particularly of Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, these gender dynamics that arise in the reconfiguration of economic activity in rural areas will very likely be in play in Dawei. Moreover, they emerge not only in processes, especially displacement, driven directly by the establishment of the industrial zone and road link themselves, but also in relation to a secondary investment wave that has been driving up land prices and incentivizing land concessions near the seafront industrial area and along the road link to Thailand. Investors seeking proximity and access vis-à-vis direct project components may increase the number of people who are dispossessed of or expelled from their land in coming years, increasing standing estimates of upwards of 20,000 people. Again, impacts will be widespread and far-reaching, but certainly the same for women and men. Particularly as labour-shedding trajectories set in, and newly landless labourers seek out employment in the informal sector, these women and men will find very different conditions in informal economies.

In Swahili the informal sector is named for where it takes place: jua kali, under the burning sun. Will women workers in and around Dawei increasingly find themselves walled in at the bottom of jua kali? If so, what kind of organizing initiatives could mitigate against exploitation there, and create opportunities for workers to raise their voices, claim their rights? Or will women activists and community leaders in the Dawei area largely avert this scenario through their continued work with local communities and other stakeholders? To create more space for the latter possibility, the gender-silence on Dawei should be broken. For activists and NGO networks, as well as for researchers, scholars, and journalists, this may well be the first task at hand.

Soe Lin Aung is a researcher and consultant based in Rangoon. He can be reached at thant.soelin@gmail.com

Works Cited

Arnold, D. and Aung, S.L. (2011) ‘Exclusion to Visibility, Vulnerability to Voice: Informal Economy Workers in the Mekong Countries.’ Discussion paper, Oxfam-in-Belgium (Oxfam Solidarités). January.

Chen, M. (2007) ‘Rethinking the Informal Economy: Linkages with the formal economy and the formal regulatory environment.’ DESA Working Paper No 46. Geneva: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Available at http://www.un.org/esa/desa/papers/2007/wp46_2007.pdf (last accessed 21 July 2012).

Chen, M. (nd) ‘Women in the Informal Sector: A global picture, the global movement.’ Available at http://info.worldbank.org/etools/docs/library/76309/dc2002/proceedings/pdfpaper/module6mc.pdf (last accessed 21 July 2012).

Desmond, M. (2011) Crossing the Hills: The Dawei Development Project. Paung Ku Background Paper. Rangoon: Paung Ku. December.

Gender Equality Network (GEN) (2012) ‘The Dawei Development Project: Some Possible Gender Impacts.’ Rangoon: GEN. January.

Kusukabe, K. et al (2008) ‘Gendering Border Spaces: Impact of open border policy between Cambodia-Thailand on small-scale women fish traders.’ African and Asian Studies 7.

Li, T. (2011) ‘Centering labor in the land grab debate.’ Journal of Peasant Studies, 38:2.

Mekong Migration Network (MMN) (Forthcoming) Migration in the Greater Mekong Sub-region: Resource Book: Border Economic Zones in the GMS. Chiang Mai: MMN. 2012.

Pollock, J. and Aung, S.L. (2010) ‘Critical times: Gender implications of the economic crisis for migrant workers from Burma/Myanmar in Thailand.’ Gender and Development, 18:2. Available at http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/critical-times-gendered-implications-of-the-economic-crisis-for-migrant-workers-131727 (last accessed 21 July 2012).


[i] I have not explicitly sought nor gained permission to give the names of specific organizations or individuals in this series, so given remaining sensitivities and security concerns for local activists and organizations working in the Dawei area, here and elsewhere in this series I will not reveal full names or titles of individuals and organizations.

[ii] This challenge, of course, is not only a challenge in Dawei. Migrant labour organizations in Thailand, for example, have highlighted the reality that, when organizing initiatives in migrant communities become more formalized, more structured, women’s participation at leadership levels tends to decrease. Organizing efforts that have built community networks in the Dawei area have likely reflected this tendency, which would account, at least in part, for the limited discussion of gender issues in relation to the project.

[iii] GEN was formerly known as the Women’s Protection Technical Working Group. Some readers may know it by the former name. GEN is a network that consists of national and international NGOs, civil society organizations and networks, UN agencies, and technical resource persons.

[iv] See for example Desmond 2011 for an analysis linking the Dawei project to the Shenzhen SEZ.