Nine years ago, Ursula Cats traveled to Myanmar (formerly Burma) for the first time. That trip changed her life. In a country that was then under the oppressive rule of a military junta, locals implored her to share their stories when she returned to the Netherlands.
“The people there basically said what Aung San Suu Kyi said, ‘Use your freedom to promote ours,’ ” she recalls. “I couldn’t let go of the people asking me, ‘Could you please tell everyone in your country about what we are going through here?’ ”
Economic growth, education, and innovation stagnated during decades of dictatorship and left Myanmar one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. But Ms. Cats saw a genuine desire among the people to improve their communities and country.
In 2009, she returned to the region to help facilitate that change. Setting up a foundation in Myanmar would have been too risky for both the organization and those it was meant to serve. Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand a few hours’ drive from the border with Myanmar’s Shan State, provides a safer headquarters for other Myanmar-focused nongovernmental organizations. So that is where she headed.
Cats started the We Women Foundation to help women in Myanmar gain access to higher education. The goal is to help her students learn about public policy and become community leaders. We Women provides scholarships, tutoring, coaching, and other support to students throughout their academic careers and beyond.
Cats started We Women to focus on women from Shan State who were living in Chiang Mai as what she calls “unrecognized refugees.” The Thai government defines a refugee as someone fleeing active fighting, Cats notes, a definition she says is too narrow and doesn’t take into account other kinds of hardship and violence.
“I didn’t want to go to the refugee camp because I wanted to pick a group that had less support than others,” she says. “I’m not saying that the refugee camps are good places to be, because they’re definitely not. But I knew there were women ... [who had] fled circumstances that were as bad or worse than [what] the people in the refugee camps [were experiencing].”
When Myanmar was still entirely under military rule, Cats says, she was criticized for focusing on women’s rights as opposed to human rights in general. But she had good reason. She had met with women who told her, “We want to fight alongside men for human rights, but we feel we don’t have as many chances; we’re not taken seriously, and we don’t have the knowledge.”
Today, We Women students are still mostly Shan, one of Myanmar’s many minority ethnic groups, though some are from other ethnic groups within Myanmar. They rely on We Women for assistance in learning English and for academic and practical support throughout enrollment at universities in Thailand and the Philippines.
This can include tutoring, mentoring, and getting help with visas or internships. Cats also personally coaches the students, helping them to define their academic and professional goals.
Cats and We Women have been criticized for focusing on higher education, a type of assistance that can be a tough sell to potential donors because it takes several years to produce results. But Cats stands by We Women’s mission, saying graduate and postgraduate degrees are what women need if they are to gain positions of influence in Myanmar and thereby bring change.
We Women’s work is “really important because young people in Burma don’t have a chance to study or get a good education,” says Nang Noon, a We Women student currently enrolled at Assumption University in Bangkok. Ms. Nang Noon is working toward a master’s degree in education administration and plans to return to Myanmar after graduation to work with NGOs.
A high-quality education is hard to come by in Myanmar, and even though the country now has opened up to international investment and influence, it is still woefully behind in key areas.
Nang Mwak, an alumna of the We Women program, graduated from Bangkok’s Ramkhamhaeng University with a master’s degree in education administration and works as a teacher trainer in Myanmar. “Maybe I cannot change the whole system, but I would [be] able to help teachers learn new things that can improve the education system,” she says.
Cats is impressed by her students, she says, especially by their perseverance in the face of corruption and bureaucracy in their home country. Working in Myanmar is challenging, she says, because there is still a threat of being jailed for political activism or dissent.
But the women remain optimistic, and that’s what Cats says amazes her every day.
“There is always hope, and they never give up. And I’m inspired by that,” she says. “How can you have so much hope and never give up when you live under these circumstances?”
Critics also question the value of sending the women to schools that might be considered second rate, rather than to Western universities. But We Women has good reasons to focus on Asian schools.
The organization has fee-waiver agreements with several regional universities; this, combined with scholarships, makes studying for a graduate degree far more feasible for students from Myanmar. Fundraising, already a challenge, would be a monumental task if students were sent to more expensive schools in North America or Europe.
Because the quality of education in Myanmar is so low, even if students have a bachelor’s degree from a university there they are likely to have significant knowledge and skill gaps that make studying for a master’s degree elsewhere even more of a challenge, Cats says. We Women tries to address those deficiencies by providing tutoring and practical advice to prepare students before they enroll.
Finally, the women often work while studying, and being in Asia allows them to apply their learning directly in their communities.
Looking ahead, We Women wants to focus on a new gender-equality program in Myanmar. The pilot program, launched in Shan State in early April, is run by two local facilitators, one male and one female. The idea is to get people in Myanmar talking about their views on gender and cultural expectations of the sexes.
We Women also has plans to open an office in Myanmar itself, most likely in Shan State, and will start offering project training programs to women who want to be active in their communities but cannot commit to years of formal schooling.
Fundraising is a top concern for the organization, especially since some donors question the need to support higher education rather than vocational training, which is cheaper and less time-consuming.
Renske de Gee, founder and owner of a Chiang Mai-based children’s clothing company that employs women from Myanmar, regularly donates a portion of her business profits to We Women.
“I have so much respect for what [Ursula is] doing because she works so hard to make sure these women have opportunities to really do something in Burma,” Ms. de Gee says. “I think they are capable of doing so many things for their villages or in politics, to do something for their country.”
Cats says she feels the same way and reemphasizes her desire to see students that have been helped by We Women become a force for change in Myanmar. Women from the program are already organizing their own training programs in remote areas unreachable by foreigners and NGOs.
The mission of We Women, Cats says, can be summed up in one slogan: “Educate one, empower thousands.”
“That is what we want, for them to reach these thousands, not us,” she says.
• The names of the We Women students mentioned in this article were changed at their request because of concerns for their safety.
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