One Day, Three Women: A WhatsApp Story About Work and Equality

In our WhatsApp story for International Women’s Day, we used real-time updates to understand the challenges three women face during the course of a typical work day. Here we replicate the story with further insight into the obstacles that keep so many women from gaining stable and equal work.

Written by Jennifer Rigby Published on Read time Approx. 11 minutes
Our three working women, from left: Mar Mar Swe, farmer in rural Myanmar; Elizabeth Joel Maiyaki, child protection worker in northeastern Nigeria; and Sima Kamil, the first female CEO of a bank in Pakistan. Illustrations by Mervin Malonzo. Swe based on a photo by Jenny Macintyre; Maiyaki based on a photo by Plan International

9 a.m. Welcome to our WhatsApp story, bringing you updates from a day in the life of three working women. Over the next 12 hours, we will follow Mar Mar Swe, a farmer in rural Myanmar; Elizabeth Joel Maiyaki, a child protection worker in northeastern Nigeria; and Sima Kamil, the first female CEO of a bank in Pakistan, to see what kinds of challenges they face in their pursuit of stability and equality at work.

By 9 a.m., Mar Mar Swe, 43, has already been up for six hours. On market days, she gets on a boat at 3.30am to take her farm’s produce to the market in the Ayeyarwaddy delta, southwestern Myanmar. The trip takes an hour.

Swe has always been a farmer, working alongside her first husband until he died in 2003, and then taking the business on herself to support her two small children. On her watch, the farm has become more successful. Selling fish, her most lucrative product, can make her around 30,000 Myanmar kyat ($22.50) a day.

Swe, who has since remarried and had two more children, is the undisputed boss in her family. She’s had some tough times, but now she describes things as “getting prosperous.” She’s planning to expand into selling the trademark fish and fish paste of her region to Myanmar’s drier areas.

“I want to do it by myself,” she says. “The trading, the traveling, the return journeys. Maybe at that time I will ask my husband to manage my farm!”

9:30 a.m. Elizabeth Joel Maiyaki, the 32-year-old child protection worker, has been up since 4 a.m. to make sure her family is ready for the day ahead. Now she is on her way to meet with survivors of Boko Haram’s campaign of violence. She works for Plan International, giving support and supplies to women and children in Adamawa, one of the three states in Nigeria worst hit by the insurgency.

“We don’t go out very early for security reasons,” she says. “We wait until after 9am to know if there is any information regarding security.”

The militant group Boko Haram has been leading a campaign of attacks and abductions in the area since around 2009, killing thousands of people and displacing millions in its quest for an Islamic state.

In 2014, the group abducted more than 200 schoolgirls from Chibok, Borno. Some of the Chibok girls have since been released, but the area remains dangerous, and particularly so for women and girls: Just last month, 100 schoolgirls were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Yobe state, although some were later rescued.

Maiyaki has been working for Plan for a year, but she has spent her entire professional career in child protection.

“I’m a case worker, so I wake up every morning thinking about the children,” she says. “People use the conflict as an excuse to rape girls. Or there are cases of child abuse or a child is exploited because the abuser feels the child has no one to run to. That’s where I come in.”

10 a.m. Pakistani CEO Sima Kamil, 60, got up at 6am for a quiet coffee at her home in Karachi before her chauffeur arrived to drive her to the headquarters of United Bank Limited in the city’s business district. She uses the 40-minute commute to reply to emails and make some calls, usually arriving at work by 9am. By now she is often in meetings, although her daily schedule varies and can get “a little frantic.”

A report released last year by Women on Board Pakistan found that, when women with family connections were taken out of the running, less than 1 percent of director positions at the 505 companies listed on the Pakistan Stock Exchange (PSX) were held by women (even with the family directors included, it was only 9 percent).

When Kamil got the CEO job last year, the reaction in the country was positive. Muneer Kamal, the chair of the PSX, told reporters it was a “huge step forward.”

Kamil hopes she will encourage young women to believe they can do similar things, because the representation of women in the formal economy in Pakistan is still “abysmally low.” But, she says, just being in the boardroom doesn’t mean she’s won the fight: “I will only think I’ve achieved something when I really succeed – not only did I get the job but the bank then achieved its objectives. So in the next two to three years, if we do that, that will be what really breaks the barriers.”

11 a.m. By 11 a.m. on market days in Myanmar, farmer Swe has finished selling her fish, eggs, rice and vegetables.

“Sometimes it’s difficult for me, as a woman, to deal with the other men in business,” she says. “For example, when we sell the paddy [rice], the men sometimes pretend they don’t understand my calculations and try to cheat me.”

But she always stands her ground.

“I don’t sacrifice myself for the leadership of men.”

12 p.m. In Karachi, Kamil’s day is packed with meetings, phone calls, emails and decisions to make as the head of an organization with 4 million customers that made almost $230 million profit last year.

Kamil says her seniority means being a woman does not cause her problems. But early in her career it was a different story.

“Whenever I’ve gone into a new role, I have been tested, and I think men do that. They see you and wonder why you are in this position. I walked out of my first job – I just left – when I saw the discrimination there,” she says, adding that she was lucky to have the background that allowed her to do that. She knows many women are forced by economic necessity to just “put up with it.”

12:30 p.m. Back in Myanmar, Swe has her only free time around midday, when she takes a few minutes to sit and eat.

Women work at most levels in agriculture in Myanmar, but research shows they are paid 20 percent less than men for the same farming jobs. (YE AUNG THU/AFP/Getty Images)

But she’s happy to be busy. Ten years ago, Myanmar’s worst natural disaster, Cyclone Nargis, destroyed her farm. Swe was already struggling: She had spent five years trying to clear the debts she accrued after her first husband’s years of illness. After the disaster, she decided to abandon the often corrupt village moneylenders and took out a $50 microfinance loan from the Pact Global Microfinance Project, funded by the by the UN’s LIFT (Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund), to buy some ducklings and start a duck farm.

“Most families in Myanmar are led by the husband,” she says. “But there are a few cases like me, where the woman does not rely on her husband. We are moving forward.”

Myanmar has been going through a process of transformation in recent years, transitioning from a military dictatorship to a semi-democratic nation under the de facto leadership of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi after elections in 2015. Women’s rights are also improving, but alongside massive human rights violations. International observers have recently been horrified by the military’s ethnic cleansing campaign against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority, causing around 700,000 – mostly women and children – to flee to neighboring Bangladesh amid routine reports of rape being used as a weapon of war.

1:15 p.m. In Nigeria, Maiyaki is working over lunch, sometimes skipping the meal altogether as she talks to the women and children she’s helping.

“Sometimes I see children and hear their stories and I don’t feel like eating,” she says. She often meets children who have lost their parents as a result of the conflict, as well as survivors of rape and gender-based violence. Maiyaki provides everything from psychosocial support to hygiene kits, which contain essential items like sanitary pads and toothpaste.

2 p.m. At the bank in Pakistan, Kamil tries to eat lunch with her staff in the cafeteria. She hopes she can be an inspiration for the women working in UBL’s rural branches who are outnumbered by men 10-1.

“It’s those young women who have not had the advantages of someone like me,” she says, pointing out that her middle-class family of working women, including doctors, is a rarity in Pakistan.

“It’s very tough for these young women. There’s a lot of, if not obvious, then covert harassment, and I think they are very brave to fight those barriers.”

While the number of women in Pakistan’s workforce is growing – from 14 percent in the 1990s to 25 percent now, according to the World Bank – it is still relatively low. As Sima suggests, work opportunities are even more limited for women from rural backgrounds than those in the educated middle class. And of those women who have found jobs, data suggests that up to 70 percent of them have experienced harassment in the workplace.

3 p.m. In Nigeria, Maiyaki’s husband picks up her 5-year-old daughter from school while she is working.

More than three-quarters of the poorest women in Nigeria have never been to school. (PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images)

“It is not so hard to balance my life because I am happy with what I am doing, my husband supports me and he really understands that I have passion for this,” she says.

Maiyaki is far from the only woman in Nigeria to have a working partnership of this type (48.4 percent of women aged 15 and older are in the workplace, according to the U.N.). But as in Myanmar and Pakistan, there’s a big discrepancy in workforce participation between the urban, educated middle class and the far larger rural population.

For example, Maiyaki has had support from her family since she was young. She got the chance to go to university and was inspired by the example of her mother, who worked as a businesswoman to support her family. But more than three-quarters of the poorest women in Nigeria have never been to school and 94 percent of those women are illiterate (according to an Oxfam report).

4 p.m. “It’s hard to say what I do because each day is completely different,” says Kamil, the CEO, who has only been in the role for eight months. But addressing workplace inequality has always been important to her, and her time at UBL is no different.

“Some of the senior team are not used to reporting to a woman, but to be fair they have made the effort,” she says.

Kamil doesn’t want any allowances made because of her sex.

“That annoys me, frankly. I would like much more to be treated as an equal. I don’t necessarily like people opening doors for me or feeling, ‘We mustn’t speak to her like this because she’s a woman.’ I would like people to be as open as they wish, and I can be as forthright as I’d like to be.”

5 p.m. As the light in the Burmese delta begins to fade, Swe is collecting more duck eggs and feeding the ducks, who follow her when she quacks.

“In the past, the men did the business, and the women were only for housework. But these days, men and women can both earn together and their role in business can be the same.”

While the 2014 census showed that one in four households in Myanmar are headed by women, it is much rarer for a woman to lead a business, particularly in the agricultural sector, which employs two-thirds of the country’s workforce. Women work at most levels in agriculture, but research by Oxfam shows that they are paid 20 percent less than men for the same farming jobs, and female-headed households struggle with access to credit, modern communications, machinery and training. Land ownership is also an issue: a family’s land is almost always owned by the husband and his wife is not guaranteed to inherit it if he dies.

6 p.m. “This is the part of the day I love the most,” says child protection worker Maiyaki. Her daughter is back from school “ready to tell me all that happened while I was away,” and the family plays, prays and eats together.

Elizabeth cooks the family’s meals over the weekend and reheats them when she gets in at night before they all sit down and eat together.

“I do my cooking – nobody cooks for me!” she laughs.

7 p.m. In Pakistan, Kamil lives in a joint family system – her mother-in-law lives with them, and so do her brother-in-law and his wife.

A Pakistani commuter crosses a rail track. Up to 70 percent of women in Pakistan have experienced harassment in the workplace. (Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)

“It helps, frankly,” because there’s always someone home to make dinner, she says. “There’s someone taking care of the home, so I don’t have to worry about it. Because whatever happens, that task often lands on the woman.”

She and her husband have a grown daughter who now lives in the United States. When their daughter was younger, “I was the one to wake her up, get her ready for school, finish her homework. Even now when I go home my husband comes home and sometimes turns to me and says: ‘What’s for dinner?’ as if I would know, when I just arrived too. But he does try.”

8 p.m. Before bed, Swe heads out to the farm again to spray water on the vegetables she’s growing to sell at the market.

With the proceeds of her farm, she is paying the school fees for her two youngest children. Her older sons work in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, about four hours away. Her new husband, who she met in 2008, works in construction there, too, on a daily wage.

“I made the decision for him to do that,” she says. “All of the important decisions are made by me.”

8:30 p.m. In Nigeria, Maiyaki’s daughter goes to bed at 8pm, after which Maiyaki and her husband get to indulge their shared love: watching wrestling on the television. “If my favorite is winning, we can stay up all night,” Maiyaki laughs.

9 p.m.  We’ve reached the end of our story, and the end of a typical day for Swe, Maiyaki and Kamil. Thank you for following along.

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