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Yangon Bakehouse Empowers Women of Myanmar


As the people of Myanmar celebrate their New Year beginning April 12, a handful of Myanmar women are beginning a new life thanks to an expat run social venture called The Yangon Bakehouse.

It appears from the storefront that the Yangon Bakehouse is a business dedicated to bringing the taste of home to UN staff and diplomats missing their sandwiches and quiche. Indeed, those western lunches are being prepared and delivered to embassies, the United Nations and various nongovernmental organizations, yet the expat run venture is more tied to local culture than first meets the eye. One of the women preparing food spent years in prison without due process under Myanmar’s previous regime, another has come out of the sex trade, two others were orphaned during cyclone Nargis in 2008.

Their stories are hard. They live in a country where 38 percent of women are in the labor force, the majority of whom are unskilled. By becoming part of the Bakehouse apprenticeship program, these women spend up to a year learning the skills and earning a salary that will give them something beyond a fighting chance — they’re gaining control of their own lives.

Although the Bakehouse officially opened its doors this month, the apprentices (who wish to remain anonymous) have been undergoing training since November of last year. Currently nine women, who range in age from low twenties to mid forties, receive instruction in food preparation as well as in other areas such as reproductive health, personal finance, hospitality and English. One apprentice explains how her life has already changed in this short time: 

I have one daughter and she finished grade five and will go into grade six. Until last year the International Non-governmental Organization, Terre des Homme, supported school fees that now I can pay by myself and I don’t have to rely on them. I pay 50,000 Kyat (about $45 USD) for books, registration fees and other costs. I can buy material and make my daughter’s school uniform myself.

Yangon Bakehouse was the brainchild of Canadian expat Kelly Macdonald. “We realize that we can't change Myanmar ten women at a time, but for those ten women, we hope to make a difference.” The venture operates as a social enterprise with the sole purpose of advancing the lives of women. All profits are put back into the business and the training provided to the apprentices is meant to ensure not only long term employment but success in their personal lives and community as a whole.

Macdonald has spent the last two decades working in reproductive health in Africa and South East Asia. After eight years living in Yangon with her family, frustrated seeing women putting their health, personal safety and dignity at risk to support their families, she wants to take things in a new direction.

Says Macdonald, “I was ready to leave the reproductive health sector’s supply side of the equation and look at trying to do something for women who were forced into compromising decisions due to economic reasons.”

In true leadership style, the mother of two acknowledged both her strengths and weakness, then reached out to other like-minded women who could round out the skills required to launch a successful social enterprise. Together, American Heatherly Bucher, fellow Canadian Cavelle Dove, and Yangon restaurateur Phyu Phyu Tin recognized, along with Macdonald, a need for good European casual food in Yangon and took it to another level.

For practical reasons the Bakehouse, for now, focuses on lunches and catering in their newly opened space in central Yangon. By limiting their overhead this early in the game, the progress of the apprentices remains front and center. Without adequate salaries, explains Macdonald, “women do not have many options for making safe choices for their health and well being.”

Their strategy appears to already be paying off for one apprentice who explains her experience with the Bakehouse through a translator this way: “The biggest change in my life is that now I have money and I can solve my families problems. I have been able to pay off debt to the money lenders (40 percent interest per month). Before we always had family problems because of money.

A goal of the program is to place the apprentices in the growing hospitality industry in Myanmar or working in private homes once they’re finished. It’s hoped a few may choose to stay on at the Bakehouse to train the next wave of women seeking an opportunity to participate in Myanmar’s growing economy. No matter what lies ahead, these few women are embracing change that was unthinkable for them six months ago.

“This opportunity has allowed me to see things around me in a different way. I feel my eyes are more open,” one says. "I don't have to feel small around other people," explains another apprentice.

For Macdonald, such sentiments are pretty much what she had in mind as she and her team set their plans in motion.

“Eventally, we want all these women to realize that regardless of their backgrounds and where they came from, their voice matters and counts," she says. "Come elections in 2014, they have a voice in their community elections. All of this is part of empowerment, as hazy as that term is, I think all of it together adds up to an aware and empowered woman.”

Visit the Yangon Bakehouse’s website for more information or to make a donation. If you’d like to contact them directly email at: yangonbakehouse@gmail.com

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