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Bold Woman Makes a Difference

Myanmar, December 8, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Jeremy Barnicle/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Jeremy Barnicle/Mercy Corps

Yangon, Myanmar - When a massive cyclone pounded Myanmar six months ago, Mra Sabai Nyun knew exactly what she wanted to do.

"I did some quick repairs on my mother's house in Yangon, which was affected by the storm," she says, "and then I headed down to the Irrawaddy Delta to see what I could do."

The Delta, a densely-populated lowland where the Irrawaddy River meets the Bay of Bengal, had taken a direct hit from Cyclone Nargis. It was immediately clear that the storm had been catastrophic and the death toll eventually topped 140,000. An estimated 2.3 million people lost their homes.

At the time, Mra Sabai was taking a break from a 30-year career in public service — she was helping her sister manage a family business — but when Nargis hit, she figured she had something to offer the devastated region.

"I got down there and I saw so many dead bodies. People were emotionally disturbed and I thought with all this education and experience that I could help, so I decided to stay," she says.

It was a natural move for Mra Sabai. Trained both as an economist and a social worker, the Harvard-educated 55-year-old has spent a career helping at-risk populations — including people living with HIV/AIDS and girls who had been trafficked for the sex trade — deal with trauma and work towards more stable lives.

"There were a few international relief groups down there already and I got a Mercy Corps-funded job through our partner in Myanmar, the British medical relief organization Merlin," she says.

She hit the ground running. Her first assignment was establishing a short-term job creation program that would help get communities back on track.

"These programs are great for injecting cash into a distressed local market and for rehabilitating damaged infrastructure," she says. "But as a social worker, I saw that the greatest benefit of this program was that it gave people a sense of sharing grief and working together."

"Everyone who survived had lost family members — sometimes everyone — and they just needed to talk. It was important for them to share with each other and with our staff, who had not been through the same thing."

Full speed ahead

More than six months after the storm, Mra Sabai is still running at full speed: she's leading the transition of Mercy Corps-funded programs from relief to longer term recovery.

"Now we are helping affected villages come up with recovery plans, basically priorities for how they want to rebuild their communities in a transparent and inclusive way — that is going to be the key to making these places function better, more safely, than they did before Nargis," she says.

Mra Sabai has no intention of slowing down.

"I love to work — you could say I am married to my job. I am 55 but my colleagues who are 25 have a hard time keeping up with me," she says.

Asked what it's like to be a professional woman in Myanmar, she has lots to say.

"Myanmar is a male-dominated country and most women are happy to just give more space to the men. I end up in leadership roles because I am competent and hard-working and men come to trust me. Usually in Myanmar, in order to succeed you have to be really nice to the boss's wife. I never do that, so at first the wives don't like me. But then they see how good I make their husbands look and they have to like me — they can't help it."

Mra Sabai in confident that there is a silver lining to Cyclone Nargis's dark clouds.

"People in that area are learning from the international groups," she says.

"They are more open to the outside world, more understanding of global standards. They are learning how to think through and solve tough common issues. They are learning skills around project management, financial systems, planning, accountability, participation. They are learning more English. People are working together in a way they did not before, and that makes more hopeful not just for the villages in the Delta but for all of Myanmar."