In Yangon, a widow must work

October 12, 2013


Three generations lived in the stately home: Daw Nyo and her husband, his parents and her four boisterous children. After finishing high school, Daw Nyo had become a proud housewife.
She relished her family’s peaceful existence.

That changed 22 years ago when her husband was killed instantly in a car accident.

Her grown children left the family home. One moved abroad and another fell terminally ill. With the passing of her husband’s parents, the upkeep of the family home became too much.

“My life used to be hopeful when I lived with my parents and got an education, and then with my husband. But now it is just me,” the 72-year-old Yangon native said. “My children don’t always visit. Sometimes I see them walk right past me on the street and I can only feel pain.”

As the money dried up, the widower opened her own food stall 15 years ago, selling the popular sweet snack khaut mote on the corner of Bo Aung Kyaw and Bogyoke Aung San Road. She can make up to K7000 on a good day. On a bad day she is grateful she receives her husband’s K12,000 monthly pension from his service as a driver for the Ministry of Railways.

Daw Nyo later moved in with her divorced daughter, who charges her K500 for dinner – the only daily meal she eats.

To start her enterprise Daw Nyo had to borrow K10,000, for which she had to repay K20,000. Medical expenses are another challenge.

“There is a free clinic here near the railway but it is too far to walk. I can only get some pills for K2000 from a closer clinic,” she said, adding she is unaware of any other government assistance she may be eligible for.

“I am not facing starvation. I go to the pagoda every day to meditate and try to live a peaceful life. I have to hope someday someone will be able to help me.”

The elderly population in Myanmar is accelerating at a rate unparalleled in the region and without careful government planning could be a roadblock for economic advancement, an international NGO has warned.

“Population demographics are based on a pyramid structure, but by 2050 there will be a serious ageing problem in Myanmar with no economically active group to run the country,” HelpAge country director Tapan Barman told The Myanmar Times last week.

To keep the country’s economy on an upward trajectory, the goal must be to “keep older persons economically active”, especially as the country develops and younger people move away from the agricultural sector, Mr Barman said.

It is predicted that by 2050, one-quarter of Myanmar’s population will be considered aged. However, Mr Barman warned this could underestimate the scale of the problem.

A complete census has yet to be undertaken, meaning the population of older people could be much higher than the current estimate of 9 percent. Additionally, while the international cut-off age for the older generation is 65, based on health indicators it is about 55 in Myanmar.

In a July 2013 report titled Getting Rich Before Growing Old, the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development warned that Myanmar’s ageing population could place a drain on achieving economic prosperity.

“The demographic dividend needs to be reaped now and the potential of the economy lifted by productivity-enhancing reforms,” OECD Development Centre Director Mario Pezzini said of the report’s data. “Otherwise, Myanmar risks getting old before the incomes and living standards of its people can significantly improve.”

At a ceremony in Nay Pyi Taw to mark International Day of Older Persons on October 1, Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement Daw Myat Myat Ohn Khin also underscored the impact of changing social dynamics, which she said are leaving older people in a uniquely vulnerable position.

“We have to welcome the growing number of older people and in the meantime, we need to be alert that it is a challenge,” the minister said.

Traditionally the elderly have been cared for by the children in family homes but this framework is quickly dissolving, Mr Barman said, with children increasingly likely to live outside the family home.

Increased rural-urban migration, decreasing fertility rates and increasing life expectancy as the country modernises mean elderly relatives do not necessarily have a family safety net to support them in old age.

“Things are changing – there is increasing poverty, economic migration and no concrete income source for older people,” Mr Barman said.

HelpAge has piloted grassroots-based elderly empowerment projects in 200 locations that have opened a window of opportunity for both rural and urban older people to regain dignity and financial


“Older people continuing to make a productive contribution affects a successful community at [the grassroots] level,” Mr Barman said. “Communities become closer and stronger with the participation of older people.”

Without a national focus on the livelihoods of older people, the social fabric could begin to fray, Mr Barman said.

“Suicide rates can rise. We see older people living alone, only sometimes receiving help from a pagoda or church, [with] lots of health problems.

“Access to health care is limited. There were only two geriatric specialists in all Myanmar and one was promoted to director of health, so now there is only one,” Mr Barman said.

This is beginning to change. Momentum is building behind a national policy, law and plan of action for ageing that have been in planning since 2008. Further policy development will take place under the auspices of a national committee on the elderly to be set up before the end of the year.

For the 2013-2014 financial year, the government has budgeted K127.78 million, coupled with K75.5 million of United Nations Development Program funds, to aid 62 aged care homes across the country.

“We will soon open a day care centre for the aged in Yangon,” minister Daw Myat Myat Ohn Khin said on October 1. “This 10 percent [of the population] is particularly in need of social protection.”

However the expense of institutional care for old persons is unsustainable both for the government and for the elderly themselves, Mr Barman said.

“These facilities are really for the rich elite in Myanmar. A rural old person cannot access this institutional care.”

This story first appeared in The Myanmar Times


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