Myat Yi Mon was the first woman to break into the betel-nut-spitting, clutch-burning, body-jerking world of Yangon bus driving and, unsurprisingly, she came as a breath of fresh air.
Her bus—the Number 21—runs from Da Nyin Gone to Maw Tin, a three to four hour route that sees passengers enjoying its red cushiony seats, photographs of beaches, and a hanging bunch of plastic flowers that rarely move thanks to the smooth driving.
Myat Yi Mon, who is in her 30s, became a Yangon Bus Service (YBS) driver in 2017 after overcoming several barriers presented by the industry and even by her own family.
“I feel extremely proud,” she said. “I had to go through so many obstacles to be where I am so I’m happy.”
The story began in 2014 when she and her brother were working as bus conductors. When the news was announced that conductors were going to be replaced with fare collection boxes, the siblings requested bus-driving lessons.
Drivers, however, refused to teach Myat Yi Mon because “they thought it was not a woman’s job,” she remembers.
“They just thought that it was impossible, and refused to let me sit in the driver’s seat. I answered by saying that in my life, there shall only be things that I have not done, there is nothing that I am not able to do.”
Myat Yi Mon then studied the driver’s motions and “learned to drive the bus visually.” Another challenge waited at home: her brother argued it was too difficult and her mother argued it was too dangerous. But it only added more fuel to the fire; Myat Yi Mon persevered.
The passenger praise that came flooding in when she finally got behind the wheel changed her mother’s mind and now Myat Yi Mon drives three to four round-trips each day and sometimes works for 10 days in a row before taking a day off.
“Burmese citizens are not against female drivers but I feel like men feel that their positions are threatened when more women start doing things that were once considered manly.”
Her bus is sitting-only and passengers pay a minimum of 200 kyats or what they believe the service is worth; her salary is 15 percent of the fares each day.
Passengers have reported feeling safer with a woman driver, partly because Myat Yi Mon waits until everybody is seated before driving.
“I feel like having more women drivers will be safer but I’m speaking for myself right now. Even though I am a woman, I am very strong hearted. If you have a strong heart and you want to take up this job, then you can do it.”
Whereas any training was unpaid before, YBS now offers 2 lakhs during this period, which is available to women. Since Myat Yi Mon began driving, two more women have joined the fleet and a further 32 are in training.
Photos by Leo Jackson.