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Women of Burma pushing the boundaries

“I was always told as a girl I can’t do this, because I’m a girl I need to act like this,” says Nandar Gyawalli, retelling her childhood growing up in a conservative family. But then one day she was given the book “We Should All Be Feminists” by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, after she finished reading it in one day, she felt very strongly that this text needed to be translated into Burmese.

“I couldn’t believe it; I was excited as I thought like her but I had never read someone who articulated it so well.”

Nandar Gyawalli (Photo: Libby Hogan / DVB)

Perhaps the earliest realisation of how girls are discriminated against every day in society was when she was told she must cook and do the housework while her mother was menstruating. In her Nepalese-Burmese family it was believed that a woman couldn’t touch anything during menstruation as she was considered dirty. When her father was feeling unwell and he entered the kitchen and fainted, her mother simply watched on, believing she could not touch or assist him in obeying above all the cultural belief about menstruation. This experience and others in society propelled Nandar to translate the book into Burmese as she believes feminism is badly needed in Burma. She has since translated ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ into Burmese and is distributing it to women in villages and cities across the country. 

Aye Aye Soe (Photo: Libby Hogan / DVB)

Girl Determined is a leadership program that teaches women about their rights, encourages girls to challenge gender stereotypes and aims to engage girls through sport and group workshops to learn leadership skills. Across the country more than 3,000 students take part each year.

When asked if anything has improved for girls’ equality in society, Yangon regional coordinator Aye Aye Soe says that actually things have gotten worse. In recent years the number of reported child rape cases has risen. In response she says some girls have less freedom than boys as parents are worried their daughters will become the next victims.

Nang Phyu Phyu Lin (Photo: Libby Hogan / DVB)

Nang Phyu Phyu Lin’s first realisation that women were seen as inferior to men was when her male cousin came into the world and her family rejoiced that this was the first “true” grandchild to be born, as it was a boy. However, her hardworking mother encouraged her to stand up against discrimination, and to study hard.

AsNational Consultant for the Alliance for Gender Inclusion in the Peace Process (AGIPP), she says one of her toughest battles is the erroneous view that many hold believing peace negotiations only involve men and guns.Nang Phyu Phyu Lin’s first realisation that women were seen as inferior to men was when her male cousin came into the world and her family rejoiced that this was the first “true” grandchild to be born, as it was a boy. However, her hardworking mother encouraged her to stand up against discrimination, and to study hard.

“They forget about women fleeing, the sexual violence that women [are] experiencing during the war and the effects on the family,” she tells DVB.

Her chief concern is getting more women involved in Burma’s ongoing peace negotiations. She is calling for a minimum 30 percent quota of women at all levels of peace and security negotiations.

Pyo Let Han (Photo: Libby Hogan / DVB)

Founder of the Feminist magazine Rainfall, Pyo Let Han believes there is a gap in literature and the media of women in leadership roles. In 2012, she grew tired of seeing magazines oriented toward female readers that were focused on makeup and fashion, so she decided to create Rainfall, which addresses women’s issues more broadly.

Despite having strong female role models around her during childhood, she only became very passionate about feminism after interviewing women labourers about their low wages and tough working conditions.

“I realised I needed to raise these issues in public and fight for equality so women get equal pay and the conditions they deserve,” she told DVB.

The quarterly magazine has covered issues ranging from menstruation, labour and factory workers’ issues, women in agriculture, the media industry, child rights, and women’s empowerment through education.

Dr Thet Su Htwe (Photo: Libby Hogan / DVB)

Before Dr. Thet Su Htwe held her first sexuality training session in rural Burma, her biggest worry was that no one would show up.

“I thought they would just see the word sex and be too embarrassed to turn up,” she recalls.

However her first training proved a success. Not only women and girls turned up, but men also arrived early to get a good seat. She founded StrongFlowers to fill a void in sexual and reproductive health education, which is still not taught in most schools across Myanmar. Although a “life skills” class features on school curricula, most teachers are hesitant or downright unwilling to talk about menstruation, contraception or relationships.

StrongFlowers’ classes “teach students of all ages about our bodies, as well as different chapters like safe sex to prevent from sexually transmitted disease and how to look after our bodies, hygiene and respect each other in relationships,” says Thet Su Htwe. She travels all over the country to villages, and surprisingly most of the classes are with boys and men in these areas.

Hla Hla Yee (Photo: Libby Hogan / DVB)

After seeing so many in her village be unlawfully arrested and/or affected by land-grabbing issues, Hla Hla Yee decided she would go into law. She was the first in her family of farmers to become a lawyer. She founded Legal Clinic Myanmar, one of the first legal organisations in Burma. Over the years she expanded their office from Yangon to now reach five other cities across the country. Despite this progress, she expresses frustration that a draft law that would specifically make violence against women illegal still has not passed Parliament. It has been five years in the works.

Passage of the National Prevention of Violence Against Women bill would allow women to gain access to justice, but until then, Hla Hla Yee says her clinic’s highest number of cases each month will continue to relate to domestic violence, sexual harassment and rape. She says this legislative reform is long overdue.

Htar Htar (Libby Hogan / DVB)

The founder and director of Akhaya, a women’s rights group that focuses on campaigns to end violence against women and raise awareness of sexual and reproductive health services, Htar Htar continues to produce creative campaigns, from “flash mobs” to online hashtag activism aimed at fighting gender inequality.

Last year Akhaya helped spearhead in-country participation in the “One Billion Rising” campaign, a worldwide movement spanning 207 countries to “Strike, Dance and RISE” in a call to stop the violence that every one in three (1 billion) women experience.

Mai Len Nei Cer (Libby Hogan / DVB)

Mai Len Nei Cer is the founder of Ninu Women, a group focused on improving the rights of Chin women. Like many other ethnic minorities across Myanmar, Chin women find it difficult to challenge customary laws that discriminate against women.

Ninu women recently published a comprehensive report calling for inheritance laws to change that don’t allow daughters or widos to inherit land or property. Instead, the son or next eldest boy in the extended family receive inheritance rights of property.

For women in both northern and southern Chin State marriage is initiated usually by the father of both the groom and bride. A bride price is also paid. Mai Len Nei Cer hopes their research collected from interviewing women across the state will help their advocacy group lobby for change in customary laws and more women in leadership positions. “These laws are really difficult to change as many elders see this [bride price] as part of their culture, but we have to show the negative impact these practices have on women and advocate for the first step of letting a woman be involved with the negotiation, to have her voice.”