Meet The Woman Who Led Ebola Response Programme In Sierra Leone
Thynn Thynn Hlaing is a development professional who has been working in humanitarian and long-term development programs for more than 15 years. Her primary focus is on women’s rights and women’s empowerment issues. She worked as the Country Director of Oxfam International in Sierra Leone over four years from 2013 to 2018. During the Ebola crisis, she led and successfully implemented Oxfam’s emergency response which was staffed by 400 employees to fight against the global threat. A native of Myanmar, Thynn Thynn holds a master in Public Administration degree from Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.
How would you describe yourself?
I am ambitious and assertive when I need to drive my personal goal.
You are a development professional. How did you pick your career path?
Coming from a developing country like Myanmar, I have seen critical issues of social inequality that have caused extreme poverty. I belong to the Shan, which is an ethnic minority group and is being marginalized. Due to the ongoing armed conflict, our state has been under-developed. Many poor people lack basic services and live in dire situations. They are not only vulnerable to all kind of shocks but also they have limited opportunities to break their cycle of poverty.
Coming from a developing country like Myanmar, I have seen critical issues of social inequality that have caused extreme poverty.
When I saw this dire situation, I was compelled to stand for justice and at the age of 14, I joined a campaign to demand for social change. I was one of the student leaders during the democratic transition in the country known as the 8888 People Power Uprising and Nationwide Popular Pro-Democracy Protesting. Ever since, I have worked with communities to address many social injustices through different roles in the development sector. It gives me great pride to serve the people who are in need. I was the youngest Redcross Volunteer in my early twenties. I am proud to look back and see how I have contributed to improving many people’s lives.
After my graduation, I worked with the Corporate sector for five years as a Field Manager for the biggest Research Company in Myanmar. One of the striking moments was when I led the Immunization Survey across 55 cities for a UNICEF project. The aim of the survey was to see whether the vaccination campaign had reached all the population in targeted areas. As part of my assignment, I visited many poor villages in remote areas of Myanmar and my heart went out to those people who were suffering. I felt that I had to do something meaningful for those poor people as a moral obligation. As a result, I decided to change my career and moved into the development field. Subsequently, I worked for Doctors without Borders on their malaria programme in armed conflict areas of Myanmar.
You are “fearless” in your current position. Help us walk in your shoes and understand where you get the strength from.
The concept of women leadership and its empowerment has been internalized in my heart throughout my childhood. I believe that women are capable to lead rather than be seen as inferior to men. Although Myanmar is very patriarchal, I grew up in a family where everyone respects women’s rights and creates a space for us to come forward with our own opinions. Mainly I was mentored by a strong-willed, hardworking woman, my late mother, who taught me how important it is to be bold when you believe in things and to claim the rights.
In the eighties, my mum was a judge which was an extraordinary achievement because women were yet to be elevated into leadership roles. She could not achieve the highest promotion due to cultural barriers and gender discrimination towards women. She felt dejected about this mistreatment, but she was resilient and move on in life.
I always reach out to other women leaders who inspire me in order to understand how they cope with the situation and learn from them on overcoming or dealing with challenges.
When I became a senior staff, I learned that being a woman leader was never an easy job. Changing our culture to accept women leadership when it comes to this stereotyping is still problematic in Myanmar. My approach has been to build my courage and confidence to equip me to work in a male dominated working environment. I have worked tirelessly to manage the resistance which comes in different forms as well as to recognise my own fears. However, I always reach out to other women leaders who inspire me in order to understand how they cope with the situation and learn from them on overcoming or dealing with challenges.
What excites you when you wake up every morning?
I have trained myself to be an optimist as part of the mindfulness process. I am enthused to make a positive impact on society wherever I am living in. This gives me satisfaction to wake up without dullness.
Share some examples where you have made a difference in your country and community.
I worked with Doctors Without Borders and we ran a Malaria programme in many poor and remote villages in Mon State. As a head of Supporting Function in their sub-office, I liaisoned with Government Authorities to obtain timely permission and travel permits in order to operate our Malaria Mobiles Clinics in grey areas which are considered unsafe to travel due to the ongoing armed conflicts between Myanmar Army and Mon Insurgent group. Within the state, a hundred thousand of malaria patients were treated under our programme and they survived. I always joined our medical team as a Government Liaison and when we revisited the places, I saw the communities become healthier and get back to their work happily.
What are some of the challenges you face? How do you overcome them?
The most critical challenges that I have faced in my life was managing the Ebola Response Programme during the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. The emergency response which wasn’t a traditional response had added up further challenges that we encountered on a daily basis personally and professionally. The job became very demanding.
I led the team to ensure that everyone within my team had followed and abided by the standard operational procedures to manage the associated risks. I made sure that I was calm and listened to the team through engagement and field visits. I created a healthy and happy working environment when everyone could come forward if they needed any extra support. I encouraged people to take rest when they burned out and lead by example. I managed this massive programme leading 400 staff and although we worked in an Ebola Hotspot Zone, none of our team members contracted Ebola. After the completion of the Ebola response, I was awarded as the best INGO Women Leader for 2017 by the African Watchdog Organization and I salute my team who were supportive of me on this leadership journey.
How do you manage self care? Do you believe in work-life balance or integration? What are some of the strategies you adopt?
Surely, I do believe and always practice a good work-life balance. This allows me to reduce my stress level and I am productive when I rest well. On Sundays I usually disconnect from work regardless of how busy I am unless there is an emergency. In addition, I do meditate everyday to help me build my inner peace and sanity.
Do you consider yourself a “Global Girl”? Why?
I do apparently. I have worked in five different countries such as Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Liberia, Sierra Leone and my own country Myanmar. Based on the experience that I gained over the past 15 years as well as significant interactions with different international actors throughout my work, I am very knowledgeable about global development and how geopolitical issues play a key role in the development work and the way its shapes social, political and environmental results.
What is the advice you would give your 16-year-old self?
I would advise my younger self Thynn Thynn to take more risks in breaking through her comfort zone. Do embrace the challenges to be able to create her own unique path without the fear of failing. The lessons learned could take her to another level of wisdom.
What are three values you think are most important for a global leader?
What’s next for Thynn Thynn?
I was out of my country for about 10 years. During that time my country has had several developmental challenges. Therefore, I believe that I can work with others to bring the necessary change. So, I aim to take any role which will allow me to contribute my expertise in the development sector of Myanmar to uplift the state of underrepresented women.