Ma Htet Htet
Ma Htet Htet tells us her story with a smile. Her mentor Naw, full of pride, informs us of Ma Htet Htet's achievements over the years to which she remains very humble. We are at their workshop in Yangon, the largest city and commercial capital of Myanmar. It is a busy but luscious, green city, with countless street markets and notorious traffic.
Ma Htet Htet is not from Yangon, but a small village in Ayeyarwady Region. She was born with club foot, also known as talipes, a condition that is easily treated with surgery. However due to the lack of healthcare in her region, Ma Htet Htet lived with the disability for many years. She narrowly escaped death as a child during Cyclone Nargis, one of the worst natural disasters to hit Myanmar. The deadly cyclone struck in 2008, causing nearly $13bn of damage and 140,000 deaths - she was rescued by her sister in the cyclone which very nearly drowned her.
Ma Htet Htet
A New Direction
When Ma Htet Htet was still a child she met her mentor Naw, who at the time was working for an NGO and supporting people living with disabilities in rural Myanmar. In order for Ma Htet Htet to be able get surgery, Naw invited her to live with her Yangon. It was after the surgery that they could start working together making sustainable jewellery.
Naw with some of her team including Ma Htet Htet
Jewellery Making as a Social Enterprise
For those living with a disability, and without any kind of formal education, employment opportunities are extremely limited in Myanmar - which is often compounded by the stigma of disability in some communities. Jewellery making offers a manual occupation, which can be used as a platform for other skills. Naw focuses her training on sustainable jewellery that is accessible to make even in the most rural regions.
This includes jewellery made from:
- Recycled paper beads, intricately painted and rolled by hand.
- Tassels from fabric off-cuts.
- Recycled can tabs to make bracelets and necklaces.
- Sustainable wood sources.
Naw showed us how jewellery making has brought many benefits to the women she employs, including those living with disabilities, in making a living:
- A safe, flexible working environment.
- Encouragement to use their own creativity.
- Peer-led training.
- Ability to work around their children.
- Choice to upcycle and recycle various materials.
- Integration into a new, uplifting community.
- Dignified work in a setting where their voices are heard.
- Options to participate in workshops and other leadership activities.
Naw has helped numerous women living with disabilities into employment. Although earning money for their families has financial benefits, other social advantages include greater self-esteem, improved learning ability and a support network of women in similar circumstances.
The Big Boss
Having now worked at the women-led workshop for 10 years, Ma Htet Htet, still only 23 years old, is a leader of other staff and trains new women that join the enterprise in jewellery making.
From jewellery making, and overseeing their shopfront in Yangon, Ma Htet Htet’s stable livelihood has enabled her to buy land and build property in her home village, where she is now known as 'the big boss'.
Paper Bead Earrings by Ma Htet Htet
Rose Quartz Necklace by Ma Htet Htet
Tiered Tassel Earrings by Ma Htet Htet