John Zaw, Mandalay
Updated: December 27, 2018 09:12 PM GMT
Sister Rosie Moe observes young women sewing in a training room at the Rose Virginie Empowerment Center for Young Women in Mandalay, Myanmar on Nov. 26. The center is run by Good Shepherd Sisters. (ucanews.com photo)
On a recent Monday afternoon, a group of women are stitching garments together in a well-lit room in Mandalay as a nun keeps watch over them, but this is no Asian sweatshop blighted by Dickensian working conditions.
They are learning useful skills to earn a livelihood, and escape a potentially much worse fate, at the Rose Virginie Empowerment Center for Young Women in Myanmar's former royal capital.
Launched in 2016, the center is run by a local chapter of the Good Shepherd Sisters. It offers classes in sewing, hairdressing, computer literacy and English so women who have been living with the risk of abuse or trafficking can train to be beauticians and pursue other careers.
"We help women earn their daily bread so they can lead a dignified life," Sister Chaw Su Aung, the coordinator of the center, told ucanews.com.
"We don't talk about religion and we only teach catechism to women who are already Catholics," she said.
The center has a "student body" of 42 women, including Catholics, Baptists, Buddhists and one Muslim. They hail from conflict-torn areas like Kachin State and other ethnic strongholds including Kayah, Chin and Karen states.
"Our goal is to provide them with vocational and life skills regardless of race or religion," Sister Su said.
Among the rules, all phones must be switched off from 8am to 4pm.
Two young women practice their hair-dressing skills at the center. (Photo by ucanews.com)
Students must pay a token 200,000 kyat (US$128) for a yearlong course, but the nuns cover all costs for those who cannot afford this yet show a commitment to improve their lot in life.
The nuns also teach "life skills" every Saturday including time-management, self-control, awareness of human trafficking, women's rights, and ways of protecting oneself from being exploited.
To attend more advanced courses on accountancy, management, hospitality and cooking, the students are sent later to another private center in the same city.
The Rose Virginie Empowerment Center for Young Women was established by two nuns with the support of seven paid staff and some volunteers.
Sister Rosie Moe, a supervisor at the center, said the first thing she tries to do each identify each woman's strengths.
"Some of them struggle with measurements, so we urge them to shift to making shampoo or cooking," she said.
The nuns network with businesses in Yangon to seek out employment opportunities for their young wards.
"But we only send them off to work if we are sure it is a safe environment for them, and that they will have the chance to learn useful new skills there," Sister Moe said.
The nuns sent two girls in Thailand recently after they wrapped up their cooking course at the center. Now plans are afoot to help others launch their own businesses, for example by setting up coffee shops.
Instructors at the facility also teach women English to help them on their quest to earn a living. (Photo by ucanews.com)
"We give them some cash so they get off the ground and they pay us back using our micro-credit scheme," Sister Su said.
The nuns said the majority of students who complete their courses end up trying their hands as entrepreneurs, mostly as beauticians.
Stella, a Catholic from Kayah State, said she heard of the center after one of her friends went there last year.
"I'm very optimistic," she said. "But my main priority is to reach a certain level of English proficiency so I can apply for NGO jobs here," said the 20-year-old.
She is also taking a computer literacy course and will plans to study accounting in December.
Mai Mai, 18, hails from conflict-torn Kachin State. She said she used to break down in tears at the sheer frustration of not being able to grasp the finer points of hairdressing.
"But some months later, I learned how to cope," said the Kachin Baptist. "You have to fail to succeed. Now I enjoy the process."
"My dream is to open a beauty parlor, so I'll keep learning until I can do that professionally," she added.
The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd Congregation was established in France in 1835 by St. Mary Euphrasia Pelletier.
The order was introduced to Myanmar in 1866. It currently has 51 nuns serving in five dioceses.
The nuns provide education and vocational training for young women facing social crisis. They also run day-care centers for HIV-positive children and the children of parents living with HIV or drug addiction.
They also care for women who are at risk of human trafficking and street children.
Their mission includes prison ministry, social outreach and advocacy on human rights, gender equality, child rights, justice and peace.
This article was first published 4.12.2018.