Myanmar’s Girls Speak Up Against Violence
February 14, 2018
As Myanmar emerges from decades of military rule, challenges surrounding urbanization, governance, and gender-based discrimination are becoming more evident. In this critical transition, a number of organizations are stepping up to ensure that women and girls are heard, including Colorful Girls, a grassroots organization leading a movement to empower adolescent girls and young women with the confidence and leadership skills to prevent violence and advocate for their rights.
On February 21, The Asia Foundation will recognize Colorful Girls for their work to empower girls across communities in Myanmar at the Lotus Leadership Awards Dinner in San Francisco. In Asia editor Alma Freeman spoke with Brooke Zobrist, Colorful Girls technical advisor and women’s rights advocate, on challenges facing women and girls and how organizations like this are innovating to help girls speak up against violence and their rights.
You have been working on women’s rights issues in Myanmar for a number of years. Can you describe to our readers the reality of girls’ lives in Myanmar today-both the areas of improvement but also the gaps?
It’s hard to generalize because Myanmar is such a diverse country. When people talk about ethnic diversity, it doesn’t always paint a clear picture. Yes, we deal with girls from the ethnic majority and with girls from many minority groups all over the country. But then we also work with girls from conflict-afflicted areas and ethnic minority girls who live in the big cities.
Having said that, I think there are some commonalities across all those divisions in how society and individuals think about adolescent girls and young women. Some people think of adolescent girls as docile, hard-working, and shy, and that they therefore need to be protected. Others see them as somehow more “filial”-taking care of their siblings and parents with the expectation of also doing the housework or cooking. In some cases, this way of thinking can leave young women and girls vulnerable to abuse-with the expectation that they have a duty to stay with their parents, or if they are a bit older and married, with their husbands. Girls can even be valorized when they stay in an abusive situation and people will often praise them as “strong.”
When we talk about ensuring rights for girls and women, we also have to talk about including boys and men in the conversation. There’s a pervasive idea that men have more innate power and are “higher” than women. Some people see boys as “wild” and “free,” and there’s this notion that they can’t, or should not be, controlled. As someone with an outside perspective, I’m often struck by how “naturalized” these ideas have become in Myanmar.
Once puberty sets in, society’s gender and social norms really come down hard on the girls. As children they had more freedoms, but now the restrictions set in. Their life choices, such as staying in school or going to work, are often out of their hands. These ideas have physical implications, especially related to sex and reproduction. Their limitations can come to define them-it’s like they’re reduced to their anatomies.
Girls at this age also start to face greater risks. We use the term “push-out” rather than “drop out” to describe what can happen at school. It’s not that the girls necessarily want to stop their schooling, although the education system here still needs a lot of reform and better funding at all levels. Ethnic minority girls may not be comfortable in Burmese, which is still the primary language used in schools, and so they may leave school because they aren’t able to understand. Some girls get “pushed out” when their families want to take them out of school to care for siblings, parents, or to make money, especially in poor families. Many girls face other kinds of sexual violence. We hear a lot about ceasefire agreements, but outside of the central lowland area, the country is still highly militarized and there’s a lot of tension among local people-especially ethnic minorities-and the military. We hear such heart-breaking stories about rape and other forms of sexual violence against girls and women in these areas. Heart-breaking because of how common it is, and also because it’s not just from the Burmese military, but also from the non-state actors or local ethnic militaries who are meant to protect them.
Despite these sobering realities, there have been some really positive signs and small changes, too. At least now we can hold public events to bring about awareness about adolescent girls’ potential contributions in society. We can more openly distribute program materials, like our by-girls and for-girls magazine, “Pollinator,” the only one of its kind in the country. The content is created by members of Colorful Girls from all over Myanmar and the layout and graphic design is managed by a committee of girl representatives. This is one of the only spaces where girls can read about other girls’ lives, experiences, opinions, and not just see girls being portrayed as naïve or as victims. Just five years ago we would not be able to have this work printed because of the strict censorship laws. There’s all kinds of new legislation in education and on the issue of families and marriage, and that legislation is coming from Parliament, not from a faction of military-led leaders. We have some women lawmakers now as well.
Like its neighbors, Myanmar faces mounting concerns over human trafficking. While trafficking is a significant problem in Myanmar, there is little public knowledge and awareness or services for victims. Can you talk about the Colorful Girls’ approach to building confidence and leadership in girls so that they can help improve this?
The most important thing for adolescent girls-and society-is to keep girls in school so that they can get an education. This is a core part of our programming. From what we’ve seen, girls are being trafficked not solely because they lack economic opportunities, but rather because society devalues them, and sees their work as not as important as boys. The girls perceive this, and having socialized many of society’s ideas, they’ll take risks to get employment to take care of their families. The risks they face are very often disproportionate to the income they could earn. There’s a big irony here, too-on the one hand, society is saying these girls need protection and shouldn’t leave home, but now here they are being entrusted to someone no one knows much about to be taken to work in a big city or sometimes overseas.
The pendulum swings back and forth on this: to the extent that there is a discussion of trafficking or a public conversation on it, the discourse seems to be saying, don’t let any young women under 18 go anywhere because they risk being “trafficked.” There’s not a wide conception of the larger problem of improving the circumstances surrounding their education. There’s also not enough emphasis on helping girls and families to make informed choices to be able to understand and weigh the risks. The middle class is outraged, which is good, but they could develop their understanding of the situation more to actually encourage better outcomes.
In our own work, we try to get girls to be able to think more for themselves and make their own decisions. Our basic model is to have the girls come together in their local communities in small groups in safe spaces to practice positive communication, self-confidence, self-reflection, decision-making, life planning, and overall leadership. We start just with the girls in their own groups, but we’ve seen that they can take these skills out into wider society. Our programs are structured to work over the long term. We go slow, allowing the skills to really sink in at a pace that is really effective. When the girls are done, they have the opportunity to then become a leader of their local Colorful Girls group.
You once described the moment that one of the first members of Colorful Girls, Zar Chi Win, found her voice, when she was involved in one of the organization’s girl-led campaigns to raise awareness about the prevalence of harassment of women on public buses in Yangon. Harassment was preventing women and girls from necessary traveling on public buses to go to work and school. Can you share with our readers about her experience and how this work can serve as an inspiration and a model for other girls like her?
Zar Chi Win is a gutsy young woman who saw a problem and decided to try to do something about it. Girls and women face a lot of harassment on the bus-both physical and verbal. Zar Chi Win was one of the girls who attended a series of workshops we held in Yangon and Mandalay to teach the girls how to organize and mobilize a campaign for social change.
We just taught campaigning skills-how to identify an issue, how to fund it, organize it, the works. Zar Chi Win went back to her community, and through discussions and consensus-building, came up with the idea to run an anti-sexual harassment campaign. This isn’t just about comfort-for these girls and women, this was about claiming back some space for movement and breaking out from the limitations and restrictions placed on them.
She did it-she got the girls and young women in her exurb of Yangon (in an industrial zone, filled with recent migrants) to board buses and give out whistles to other women and girls to blow when they were being harassed. They spoke to bus conductors and fare collectors to get their support and to help anyone who was being harassed. They also talked to men get them “onboard” as well. Keep in mind that Zar Chi Win did this all just as things were starting to change and loosen up in the early 2010s. It was scary, and we weren’t sure whether it would work or whether there would be some kind of pushback.
How do you think that community of philanthropists like the Lotus Circle can further engage and support organizations like Colorful Girls, and the women’s movement in general in Myanmar?
I think it’s very important for people in developed countries to understand more deeply that the reality for women in developing countries is vastly different. It’s also important to realize that one “poor” Asian country can’t just be interchanged with another. The experiences of Myanmar are not the same as India, nor are they the same as China, for example.
Colorful Girls, which is the only program in the country of its kind, is essential to ensuring these girls in Myanmar grow up safe, empowered, and with rights, cannot exist without funding from The Asia Foundation’s Lotus Circle and other donors. We absolutely cannot continue this important work without it. If we can help these young women, there are so many benefits to society, too. Keep girls in your mind and let other people know about them. The more they are recognized and the more they are in people’s minds, the more we will be able to do for them.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the interviewee and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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