Read caption Naw Su Phaw, 24, pauses at her sewing machine in Dawei, south-east Myanmar. Photo: Ingrid Prestetun/NRC

Tailoring a future

Thale Jenssen|Published 11. Sep 2017
She used to work long, exhausting days in the fields for Burmese landowners. Now, Naw Su Phaw wants to be her own boss.

(This article is from a visit to Myanmar in March 2017)

A steady, mechanical sound buzzes from 30 manually operated sewing machines, blending in with eager chatter and laughter.

I’m visiting the Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) education centre for youth in Dawei, a small town in south-east Myanmar.

The narrow sewing tables are covered in heaps of colourful fabrics, encircled by young women measuring, cutting and discussing design. All windows are wide open and a rooster prances about in the courtyard, trying his best to overpower the noise of mopeds passing by.


Twenty-four-year-old Naw Su Phaw sits in front of a sewing machine. She’s wearing a light green dress decorated with pink flowers, but no, it’s not her design, she smiles when I ask. In a few days, she will graduate from the centre’s tailoring class.

“I’ve wanted to become a tailor since I was 19,” she explains. “I wanted to be independent.” But at the time, an education wasn’t an option. Her mother had taken ill, and Naw Su Phaw had to stay home and take care of her.

Seventy years of conflict

Naw Su Phaw comes from a village further south. Both her parents have passed away, but her brother and sister still live in the village.

Conflicts have tormented Myanmar since the country became independent from Great Britain in 1948. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced by fighting between the government army and groups struggling for representation.

Read NRC's Secretary General Jan Egeland's statement on the situation in Myanmar's Rakhine state.

Around 20 years ago, the fighting between the government army and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), who wanted independence for the Karen people in southern Myanmar, came to Naw Su Phaw’s neighbourhood.

Hiding in the forest

They had to flee. She was only four years old at the time and cannot remember all the details, but some have stuck to her memory:
“We hid in the forest. We went for days without food and we had to ask other villagers to share their food with us. When we came back, our house had been burnt to the ground.”

The family escaped to another village and lived there for four years before finally returning home.

But moving back wasn’t easy. At any given time soldiers from the government army would walk around in the village, approach the villagers and question them about KNLA. Those who refused to reply risked being killed. For Naw Su Phaw, what had been her home no longer felt safe.

We hid in the forest. We went for days without food and we had to ask other villagers to share their food with us. When we came back, our house had been burnt to the ground.

Hopes for lasting peace

Today, there is peace in this part of Myanmar. In 2015, some of the larger armed groups signed a ceasefire agreement with the authorities. However, fighting continues between the government army and armed groups in other parts of the country.

“We used to live in fear; we couldn’t go anywhere or talk to anyone,” Naw Su Phaw recalls. “Today, we have freedom of movement and I can speak with whomever I like.”

When NRC came to her village last year announcing the youth education centre, she knew that it was what she wanted. She hopes the peace in the region will last, so that she’ll have a chance at her dream to run a tailor shop.

The centre’s participants are young people between the ages of 18 and 25, from the city of Dawei and villages in the region. Some have been displaced, in Myanmar or in a neighbouring country. Others belong to minority groups, have physical disabilities or have only few years of schooling.

To make it, she has to work hard. She only went to school for four years in her childhood, and she has a lot of catching up to do.

“Since I’ve missed out on so much education, I find it hard sometimes to follow the class,” Naw Su Phaw explains. But: “I want to say to all the youth in the world that they have to study while they have the chance!”

YEP student Naw Su Phaw (24)
From: Myeik Township, Bae Ma Tee village
Ethnic group: Kayin
She is the youngest of three siblings, has one brother and one sister.
She lives in her village with her brother and sister, but is staying in Dawei temporarily while attending the class at the YEP centre.
Her dad passed away when she was ca 14 years old and her mother died three years ago. They both died from diseases.
In 1997-1998 there was fighting in her village between the government army  and the Karen National Liberation  army.
She had to flee together with her family and other villagers into the forest. 
“We stayed in the forest for 3-4 days. When we came back, our house had been burnt to the ground.” 
She was 5-6 years old at the time they fled. They had to live in other people’s houses.
“We fled, we had nothing to eat for days and we had to ask other villagers who were also hiding in the forest to share their food with us.”
She was too young to remember anything from the time in the forest, but she an episode from when they escaped from the village: “I remember seeing soldiers following my aunt and uncle, shooting at them, but they didn’t hit them.
Since the house had burnt down, the family went to another village nearby and lived there for 3-4 years. During the first 6 months, they lived with other people, then their father built a house for his family.
After 3-4 years they returned to their home village (she doesn’t remember which year)
Still, the government army  would come by, asking questions about the Karen National Liberation  army (KNLA). Those who did not give any information risked being killed.
In 1998-1999, at the age of 16, Naw Su Phaw’s sister was captured by the government army, who accused her of being a spy for the other army. She was held for one night and then released when they found out she was not a spy.
She was always afraid the government army  might come to their home. There were cases where the head of the household was captured, also after the family returned to the village.
Today there is peace, but he does not remember since when.
 She wants to settle in the village.
She started at the YEP centre in January 2017.
“In addition to dress making, we learn about basic business knowledge, and about health and diseases. I wasn’t aware of this when I started.”
“The tailoring class will make me able to establish my own shop.”
At 19 years old she decided to become a tailor, but her mother was sick at the time, so she had to stay home to take care of her.
She learned about the YEP centre when the teachers came to her village to do the mobile life skills training. They said that if someone was interested, they could come by the YEP centre and apply.
“I was chosen out of many applicants.”
“The training is important, because I’m determined to stand on my own feet.”
“I used to work in other people’s farms, but I was not treated well. With the dressmaking skill, I’m not dependent on working for others.”
If she did not attend school, she would have to live with her sister and do whatever her sister wants her to do. Her sister is a very aggressive person. 
“I started at the YEP centre without my sister’s approval.”
Naw Su Phaw’s only went to school up to 4th grade. 
“That’s why this training and the life skills classes are very important to me, they will make my future easier and not as tiring as it used to be.”
In the future, she wants to work as a tailor. She cannot start her own business yet, because she has debt she needs to pay off.
About Myanmar:
“Before the peace, we had to live in terror, we could not go anywhere or talk to anyone. Now, there’s freedom of movement and I can talk to anyone I want.”
 “I want constant peace in the future.”
Her message to other youth is: “I encourage everyone to study, I did not have the chance to go to school and now I’m struggling at school. So study while you have the chance!”
How do you think the government has treated minority groups?
“They were forced to say that they were doing fine, although they were bullied. Now they have the chance to speak up. Before they did not.”
“I feel very happy and thankful to my teachers for choosing me to attend this classes and I wish god would bless them. Before I started these trainings, I had very little general knowledge, which I now have gained, and I am very thankful for my teachers.”
“Now that I have my chance to attend the school I will try my best to learn here, and when I go back to my village, I will try my best at work.”
“Because I could grab this opportunity, I have the chance to pursue my dreams. Not everyone can have this chance, that’s why I’m lucky, therefore I will try my best in the future.”
“What I want to say to my friends is: Use your time wisely, don’t think your less worth than others, use what you have learned wisely, and try your best. To live your best, and then to become a leader who can contribute to the country.”
“You will not be able to succeed if you do not use your time wisely. And try to learn and get as much education as possible while you still have time.”

NRC staff  Ei Ei (23) has worked for NRC for more than a year as a dress making trainer. She is from Kyan Bount village.

Quote: “I have worked here for one year. I like it, it’s my hobby. It’s a business opportunity for the youth. If they did not get this training, they would not have a proper income, they would do casual work or work with their family.”

In 2013, The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) started a vocational and life skills education programme called Youth Education Programme (YEP) for displaced youth and returnee refugees in southeast Myanmar. We work closely with community members to develop programmes tailored to their needs.
These projects aim at equipping youth with knowledge and skills to make safe life choices and give them stable ways to earn a living. Our education activities provide vocational and life skills training, through courses in dress making, food preservation, motor bike repair and construction apprenticeships, basic courses on basic business planning, marketing and accounting and basic education classes teaching literacy and numeracy.
In 2016, a total of 582 students graduated from the programme in southeast Myanmar.

Myanmar – the context
After fifty years of military rule, Myanmar welcomed a new era of democracy and reform with its first civilian elections in 2015. However, the newly formed government still faces the same issues as before. 
Known as the “longest running civil war,” Myanmar has been tormented by internal conflicts led by ethnic groups struggling for representation since the country’s independence in 1948. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced in the decades-long conflict. Every day, people are being displaced by violence, leaving everything they own behind. Years of fighting have forced many to flee over and over again.
Since late 2011, the government has signed ceasefire deals with the majority of ethnic armed groups in the country, and in October 2015, the government negotiated a nationwide ceasefire agreement with eight of the largest ethnic armed groups. Still, some groups have refused to sign the agreement, and they continue negotiating with the government.
In addition to conflict, disasters and, increasingly climate change are forcing people in Myanmar to flee their homes.
In Myanmar, NRC helps displaced people and people affected by conflict through building disaster-resistant schools and wells, providing civil documentation, youth education and camp coordination. We have been working in the country since 2008 and all of our activities are managed from seven field offices within the Southeast Region, Kachin and Rakhine States.
We are working for people in Myanmar to have the right to education, work and property, so that they can live safe and independent lives.

Photo: NRC/Ingrid Prestetun
Read caption Naw Su Phaw discusses her work with an NRC staff member during one of her classes at the youth education centre. Photo: Ingrid Prestetun/NRC
NRC’s youth education centre in Myanmar
  • In 2013, NRC opened a youth education centre in Dawei, south-east Myanmar. We offer classes in tailoring, motorcycle repairs, basic health, and how to start up and run a business.
  • In 2016, a total of 582 students graduated from the centre. The objective is to educate young people in a way that will help them get a stable job and regular income.
  • NRC has worked in Myanmar since 2008, assisting people in accessing education, work and property. Read more here.