Inside the Fight to End Gender-Based Violence in Myanmar

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Violence against women is a serious problem, but in Myanmar, it is particularly challenging ­ — the United Nations Population Fund has described it as “a silent emergency.”

In this Southeast Asian nation, as elsewhere, violence against women takes many forms: domestic violence perpetrated by husbands as well as other family members; unwanted touching on public transportation systems; and systematic violence in conflict zones where women displaced from their homes are especially vulnerable.

Yet, in Myanmar, troubling gaps remain in providing services and accountability for survivors. According to a 2018 report from the Myanmar Gender Equality Network (GEN), “[T]he negative consequences and legacy of the long-lasting civil war of more than five decades have bred a culture of male domination, fear, and violence in Myanmar, and this has reinforced the cycle of [gender-based violence] and the oppression of women.”

The report notes that few survivors report their cases to authorities due to entrenched cultural and social norms that cast domestic violence as a private affair — indeed, it remains legal in Myanmar. Local governments and the healthcare system also lack understanding about gender-based violence, while women are often unaware of the few support services available. (As of last year, there were a mere nine shelters located in four of the country’s seven regions.)

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In 2016, Walking the Walk on Combating Gender-Based Violence in Myanmar set out to change this. The program, funded by the U.S. Embassy in Yangon and implemented by World Learning, worked to equip civil society organizations to better serve survivors of gender-based violence and better advocate for an end to such violence.

Made possible through a collaboration with a technical partner, GEN, Myanmar’s leading gender equality-focused network, the program helped build a stronger advocacy community through networking events and training courses — Advocacy for Ending Gender-Based Violence and the follow-on Training of Trainers for Ending Gender-Based Violence. It also helped people learn to better address gender-based violence in their communities and provided small grants to fund their work. This program, including the development and delivery of courses and events, was implemented through the Institute for Political and Civic Engagement (iPACE), a training center with locations in Mandalay and Yangon also funded by the U.S. Embassy and managed by World Learning.

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Phyu Pyar Win Ye conducting an AWDI training.

Phyu Pyar Win Ye, a Muslim woman from Yangon, has worked to build awareness of violence against women and child rape through sex education. Last year, she enrolled in the Walking the Walk training courses at the American Center in Yangon to gain knowledge and practical skills. But she didn’t know it would change the way she works entirely.

These trainings not only introduced Phyu Pyar Win Ye to terms and concepts related to the LGBTQI community, they also introduced her to like-minded women who joined forces with her to make even greater change in their community. Phyu Pyar Win Ye met fellow women’s rights activists Cho Cho Aung and Khine Zin Soe during their Training of Trainers course. Together, they founded the Yangon-based Active Women Development Initiative (AWDI) in August 2018.

AWDI focuses on empowering vulnerable women and girls in suburban townships — where incidents of domestic violence and rape are more prevalent — by hosting workshops with mothers and girls to educate them about gender-based violence and nurture their leadership skills. The women behind AWDI also convinced their local MP (Member of Parliament) to hold a two-hour awareness talk for nearly 40 participants at the Suu Vocational Institute in Hlaingthayar Township.

Phyu Pyar Win Ye credits her training at iPACE with giving her the tools she needed to reach out to her MP and convince him of the necessity of the workshop. “iPACE not only connects me with the people who have the same interest and passion to work for ending GBV,” she says, “it also strengthens my networks through networking events and giving opportunities to meet [influential] people in the field.”

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Than Zaw participating in iPACE’s 16 Days of Activism campaign.

In 2017, Than Zaw, a gender rights activist in Yangon, realized he needed to learn better techniques to carry out his work. As a member of the chief executive committee of what has since been renamed to Action Women Rights (AWR), a civil society organization that works to prevent violence against women, Than Zaw sought to develop better and more specialized training methods to help his organization.

He enrolled in the Training of Trainers for Ending Gender-Based Violence course at iPACE at the American Center. There, he learned practical tips from his instructors on how to overcome the challenges of discussing concepts like sex and gender in local communities.

“In rural areas, talking about GBV issues such as sex and body is really sensitive,” he says. “I came to know that we need to be flexible in training methods in accordance with the context. That makes the iPACE course different.”

Now, Than Zaw continues to expand his work. As a trainer and adviser for AWR, which provides awareness workshops as well as counseling and paralegal services to victims of rape and sexual assault, he has shared the training tools he gleaned from the Training of Trainers course. And he hopes to do even more. “Using iPACE’s training methods, I want to do more GBV awareness talks and workshops in remote areas where other organizations have not reached,” he says.

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Beyond giving advocates the tools and the networks they need, Walking the Walk also supported alumni through small grants to help them achieve their goals.

In Mandalay, women’s rights activist Soe Soe Khaing founded TRI STAR, an organization dedicated to reducing gender-based violence among adolescents, after participating in both iPACE courses in her city. As an alumna of the program, in summer 2018 she received a small grant to hold a day-long awareness training for teens at five different educational centers in Pyigyitagun Township, a lower-income community.

“Although those residents encounter gender-based violence in their social life, they are not aware that it is violence,” Soe Soe Khaing explains.

Through these trainings, TRI STAR shared information about gender-based violence with local students from grades 8 to 11. The organization also invited the students’ teachers to join. Altogether, the trainings reached 154 participants, including 134 students and 20 teachers. Soe Soe Khaing and her TRI STAR co-founders, also Walking the Walk alumni, have continued to provide trainings in villages across the Mandalay region, including one for 100 children at a local private school.

“iPACE’s GBV course enhanced my confidence to teach clear messages about gender stereotypes,” Soe Soe Khaing says.

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Over the course of two years, Walking the Walk on Combating Gender-Based Violence provided training to 115 participants from all 14 states and regions of Myanmar. Through those alumni, as well as the efforts of other women’s rights advocates across the country, the struggle to empower women and girls in Myanmar continues.

As a male activist in this sphere, Than Zaw believes an important next step would be to transcend gender lines on this issue. “Male engagement needs to increase in fighting gender-based violence,” he says. He’d like to see more men enrolling in future iPACE courses that focus on how to combat gender-based violence. As he notes, an increase in male participation will also require advocates to address the stigma around traditional gender roles.

In one welcome development, the Huffington Post reports that there’s reason to hope the Myanmar parliament may pass the long-awaited Prevention and Protection of Violence Against Women Act this year. And women’s rights advocates recently convened in Yangon to argue for a joint action to remove the barriers that women face in Myanmar in acquiring citizenship documents.

These new initiatives are clear markers of Myanmar’s progress toward ending gender-based violence. In the meantime, Walking the Walk alumni carry on the important work of educating their communities and promoting the idea that violence against women and girls is never acceptable.

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World Learning empowers people, communities, and institutions to create a more peaceful and just world.

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