RANGOON — Flipping through a notepad, Thida Win stops at a page whose lines are filled with the letter “B.” The 40-year-old teacher is showing a 4-year-old girl how to form the letter, at a table with other children in a daycare not far from Shwedagon Pagoda.
“I teach them Myanmar [language], but also how to write some English letters,” Thida Win says, turning to another page in the girl’s notebook with numbers.
When the daycare closes, most of the children will go home to their parents in Rangoon, Burma’s biggest city. But Thida Win and the 4-year-old girl—along with all the other teachers—will stay behind on the compound, where many of them have lived for years.
The daycare is a project of the Myanmar Women’s Development Association, a social welfare association that has run a shelter for orphaned and impoverished girls and women for more than 65 years. Eighty-five girls and women—some as young as 4, and a few in their 40s and 50s—live at the shelter today, in dormitories near the daycare center.
While school-aged residents attend public schools during the day, some of the young adults get jobs in the city. Others receive teacher training from the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement to operate the daycare, which is a source of income to support the women’s shelter. Almost all of the 150 or so children in the daycare program live with their parents in Rangoon and pay a tuition fee, while a few of the children live at the shelter and attend for free.
The Myanmar Women’s Development Association was originally founded as the Burma Women Salvation League by a female politician, Khin Hla, in 1947, about 15 years before a military dictator seized power. Caring for homeless and helpless girls, the association intended to raise up women who could contribute to rebuilding the country, which would become independent from the British in 1948.
Today, the shelter is run by a group of older women volunteers and self-employed social workers who take in girls and women from all over the country, including ethnic states that were torn apart by civil wars during military rule and continue to see outbreaks of fighting today. Some of the girls come from Arakan State, where communal violence between Muslims and Buddhists has devastated communities over the past year. Others were born in Chin State, the country’s poorest state, or Karen State, where peace talks are ongoing after six decades of war.
“My uncle told me to come here,” says Kyin Kham, a 20-year-old who fled Shan State eight years ago amid fighting between rebel armed groups and the government army. Now pursuing a university degree in physics, she says her parents were too poor to care for her and her eight siblings.
She is one of four women at the refuge center attending university. Dozens of the girls attend public basic education schools and high schools in Rangoon, while others receive vocational training. The women’s association raises money for textbooks and school uniforms.
The dormitories and daycare can be found where they were originally set up in 1947, up a slight hill at No. 17 Wingabar Street, near Kandawgyi Lake. Not far from the entrance stands the main building of the women’s association, an impressive mint-green colonial style house that is reportedly 200 years old. On the front porch, a collection of blankets, pillows, and mattresses are for sale. These products—which are sewn by volunteers, with help from residents at the shelter who are not in school—are sold as another source of income.
Most of the mattresses are purchased by hospitals in the city, says Khin Kyi Htay, 53, a frequent customer who decided about 15 years ago to start volunteering at the shelter. She says the women also sell homemade Burmese rice cakes, mohinga and other traditional cuisine to customers who place orders. Donations help keep the shelter going, with funding for the daycare from Unicef, the UN agency for children’s rights. The Japan government and a Japanese NGO provided funds for one of the dormitories and the dining hall.
But the secretary of the women’s association, Yin Kyi, 67, says a lack of funding means the shelter cares for fewer girls today than it did six decades ago, when about 200 residents lived on the compound. “Money is a little less today,” she says. “We don’t get as many donations, and daycare attendance is lower.”
Despite difficulties, she has continued volunteering at the shelter for 35 years and has no plans to stop now. “I never had children of my own,” she says. “I wanted to help.”