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Inspiring young girls with powerful women’s stories

Alyson Neel, right, poses with Hla Hla Win, one of the women featured in the book “Girl Power in Myanmar.” (Photo: Libby Hogan / DVB)

A sneak peek of a new children’s book portraying 15 everyday heroines of Burma was launched last week in Rangoon.

The authors of the book “Girl Power in Myanmar,” Alyson Neel and Pyo Let Han, say the objective is simple: “The goal is to inspire girls — and boys — with strong female role models and leaders.”

The profiles range from sports stars such as archer Aung Ngeain, well-known professionals such as Dr. Cynthia Maung, and lesser-known community leaders such as Ludu Daw Amar, a prominent dissident writer and journalist who was not afraid to criticise Burma’s previous military regime.

Statistics on the lack of female representation in leadership roles in Burma speak for themselves — at the negotiating table in the country’s peace talks, in lawmaking, business and the arts. It is this gender imbalance that inspired the authors to attempt to change this narrative.

Neel hopes the book will be read by both boys and girls, and disrupt the local status quo that still sees women in supportive roles and not positions of leadership.

“It is important to inspire girls and empower them as leaders, as well as educating boys as they grow up so they don’t just see girls as just mothers and daughters, but leaders,” she says.

The launch kicked off on Tuesday of last week, inviting families to a reading of some of the profiles from the book as well as a second reading on Thursday. Students took part in a discussion with Neel, and prints of some of the included illustrations were also up for sale.

The authors hope to publish an initial print run by the end of this year.

Arar Myo Htet, who works for the charitable organisation founded by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, told DVB he was very interested to come and see the “Girl Power” project.

He hopes the book will inspire more strong female role models in Burma, and pointed to a slight increase in the number of females holding elected office or otherwise engaged in the country’s politics, stating: “Now we have a few more different township and state-level ministers, so we can say the statistics have improved, but it is not enough to meet international standards. I also want more in my country and to reach international standards.”

While there are books about female Burmese leaders for an adult audience, and a stack of books written on leader Suu Kyi, Neel found that there were hardly any books written on strong female leaders for young girls.

Another audience member at last week’s launch, Ei Ei Soe Naing, was curious about the criteria Neel used to choose the 15 leaders in the book.

The text aims to be intersectional and showcases an ethnically diverse cohort of women from the different regions of Burma. Neel also touched on her dream to make this book into the first of a series. “We’ve got a list of 150-plus [women role models],” she says.

The authors also hope to touch on important and at-times sensitive themes such as sexuality and religious diversity.

Accessibility was key when the authors sat down to plan how the book would be brought to life. They decided to make the book multi-lingual — in English and Burmese — as well as providing text in a relevant ethnic minority language whenever a woman of that background is represented.

Building her team was one of the easiest parts of the process, says Neel. A long-time fan of Pyo Let Han, founder of Rainfall magazine, Neel was honoured to have the feminist writer bring her playful, imaginative tone to the Burmese written profiles.

Approaching a team of illustrators was an organic process. Illustrator Kay Zin Su (Ku Kue) says she leapt at the invitation to work on the project.

“I loved the idea and as an artist it is difficult to survive in Myanmar, so I have to work a full-time job as well, but I love also working on these projects I’m also passionate about.”

The illustrations produced by Chuu Wai Nyein, Joosk Studio and Phyu Mon are a mixture of watercolours, acrylic and graphic design. In one profile, the artist Sandar Khine submitted a self-portrait.

Neel hopes the book will reach as many young people as possible and says, “We’re open to, and have begun, exploring collaborations to make sure we are maximising our reach. And of course, it would be a dream to work with the government to integrate this sort of project into the school curriculum.”