Girls in Myanmar’s War: Where are their portrayals?

Moving around Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital, I come across a handful of new billboards with a daunting cartoon image of a young teenage boy against a backdrop of military equipment. The signs are a part of a new public awareness campaign aimed at ending recruitment of boys into both the armed forces. Though there are continuing reports of the recruitment of child soldiers, the billboard campaign is a step that at least in some part of the military there is a desire to professionalize the force. Having worked with girls for a decade and coming up to the fifth anniversary of the founding of Girl Determined, a girls’ leadership program in Myanmar, I wonder why there is not a public campaign to root out the use of girls in the war zones as well.

I keep asking myself, what do girl victims of war look like?” And the answer, “much the same as other girls.”

Seeing a small boy with a machine gun strapped around his chest is an image that cannot easily be forgotten. For the atrocities of war to be perpetrated against and by children is among the most gruesome of abuses imaginable in the modern day. From our work at Girl Determined we know that girls are direct victims of Myanmar’s ongoing civil war, so where are they? Where is their billboard campaign? Their special task force? A girl in a war zone looks much the same as a girl in a poor village or urban outskirts community. She is likely to be seen carrying some bushels of rice, a pot, maybe collecting firewood or perhaps washing someone’s clothes or squatting around a cooking fire. A girl near the front lines wears the same clothes as a girl in a nearby village.

I certainly do not mean to compare the experiences of boys recruited for the front lines with girls recruited as porters or possibly for sex. I do not know if they are comparable. Rather, I am simply asking – is it the commonplace nature of images of girl victims of war that pushes the world to so often overlook their experiences of it?

The girls taken by Boko Haram and the well-done report by Human Rights Watch documenting their experiences reminds us that girls around the world need attention drawn to their experiences of war.  The ways that girls have encountered war in Myanmar is diverse. Girls have been displaced across and within country borders, have fed soldiers that passed through their villages, given their pocket money at a check point while going to collect firewood, been raped by members of the military and forced to contribute domestic duties at the front lines. Having lost parents, their villages burned down, girls have crossed into other countries or the cities seeking work only to find exploitation. Though classed as “non-combatants,” isn’t the exploitation of girls in a war zone worthy of direct action?

Girl Determined works with girls who come from different backgrounds, many the direct and indirect victims of war, others of displacement, poverty and discrimination. In the absence of that one shocking image, we use the girls’ voices and their determination to achieve their potential to shape the conversation. Implementing programs in some forty communities, girls are able to process their experiences and find clarity in their demands for improved access to school, health services and protection from exploitation.

Join the movement of girls making change in Myanmar and across the world to ensure that girls who have faced or are at-risk of experiencing all forms of violence have a say in direction of their lives and the ability to decide their futures.

Visit our website and like us on Facebook to get the latest thoughts from Girl Determined, the next generation of leaders in Myanmar.

Sexual Violence in Conflict

Strong Women
Photo: Courtney Wenduki (Creative Commons licensing)

Violence against women is a global issue and constitutes various human rights violations. Annually, the 25th of November marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and this special day also marks the beginning of the global campaign – 16 Days of Activism. The theme for this year’s campaign, “From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Let’s Challenge Militarism and End Violence against Women” highlights the impact of militarization and sexual violence during conflict. During armed conflict it is now said that it is more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier, due to the strategy of sexual violence as a weapon of war. The Rwandan genocide memorial notes that 500,000 women were raped during 100 days of conflict (IPU, 2008).

The consequences of sexual violence are devastating and destroy whole communities, ripping through the fabric of humanity.

As we witnessed, World AIDS Day, December 1st, also served as a reminder of the millions of women and girls who have been infected through rape in conflict. Many women and girls are subjected to rape including gang rape, forced marriages with enemy soldiers, sexual slavery, and other forms of violence (being forced to witness others being raped, mutilations, etc.). Many have fled their homes, have lost their families and livelihoods, and may have little or no access to health care. All these factors create conditions in which women’s and girls’ vulnerability to HIV is disproportionately increased.

Sexual violence is a security, public health and human rights issue and the horrific physical, emotional and psychological damage and suffering of sexual violence in each country is unique.

In Syria for instance, the threat of sexual violence was a major contributor to displacement as families fled in an attempt to get girls and women safe. As I wrote previously in a blog about Syria women and girls continue to suffer indiscriminately through war and conflict as brutal killings, rape and sexual assault and harassment destroy the fabric of families and whole communities. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has reported that rape and sexual assault are now being used as a weapon of war in Syria. Unfortunately, this had the unintended consequence of early and forced marriages as parents married their daughters off to older men in an attempt to keep them safe.

Over the course of 2013, various global commitments have been made to eradicate sexual violence in all circumstances with a strong focus on sexual violence in conflict. The G8 Foreign Ministers’ pledged to work to eradicate sexual violence in conflict and develop an international protocol on the investigation and documentation of rape and other forms of sexual violence in conflict. Furthermore, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2106 to strengthen efforts to end impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence and during the 68th UN General Assembly 137 countries endorsed the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, proposed by the UK government.

But is this enough, what’s next? How do these Declarations and Resolutions translate to the women and girls, men and boys on the ground?

In the Congo alone, tens of thousands of women and girls have been the victims of sexual violence. Militias use rape as a weapon of war, destroying communities and in many cases even the police and security forces who are supposed to protect civilians are perpetrators themselves. This is a global scenario as testimonies of rape and sexual assault by protectors such as police and aid workers particularly in refugee camps are tragically common.  As many as 64,000 women and children were raped and sexually assaulted in Sierra Leone, over 40,000 during the Bosnia and Herzegovina war, 4,500 in a single province in the Congo in just six months and everyday hundreds of women and children are raped in Darfur.

These are not just the acts of individual soldiers, but organised military operations.

Fortunately, there are organisations working in partnership with governments, local communities, legislators, victims/survivors and perpetrators to eradicate sexual violence and bring about healing and justice. For example, Raise Hope For Congo– a campaign of the Enough Project organisation which aims to end genocide and crimes against humanity- is addressing sexual violence in conflict at the root cause. The campaign supported by the US Government has four key objectives:

  1. Increase prevention of and protection against Sexual Gender Based Violence (SGVB) for vulnerable populations.
  2. Reduce impunity for perpetrators of SGBV.
  3. Improve the capacity of the security sector to address SGBV.
  4. Increase access to quality services for survivors of SGBV.

Although, there are mountains to climb to achieve peace with real justice in this world, we can each start by raising our voices for the voiceless. Sexual violence in conflict is a crime against humanity that for too long the world has been silent about and neglected the millions of women, girls, men and boys who have been victims.

Now is the time to act.

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The Freedom Center: Bridging the Past and Present of Slavery

As we approach the end of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month here in the US, I want to take a moment to highlight an institution that is making strides in raising awareness about the reality and horrors of slavery and human trafficking. And, it just so happens to be located in the modest Midwestern city that I live in, Cincinnati, Ohio!

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The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is situated on the Ohio River, which was the dividing line between slavery and freedom in the US up through the late 1800s, in the heart of downtown Cincinnati. The Freedom Center is commonly and erroneously referred to as a museum. But, it’s really more than an institution dedicated to objects and ideas of the past. The Freedom Center is an active symbol of consciousness, a platform from which voices can be heard, and a bridge linking the past and present. Oh yes, and it has the first permanent exhibit in the world dedicated to modern-day slavery and human trafficking.

This exhibit, Invisible: Slavery Today, truly gives a comprehensive view of what slavery and trafficking actually look like around the world today. The exhibit is a sensory experience, made to make you feel like you are a part of slavery, from dim lighting to the wooden crate walls to the mattresses with ‘Sex Trafficking’ scrawled across the bed springs and the miniature brothel models underneath. It’s a haunting homage to the dirty, seedy, exhaustive underbelly of an underground trade and the lives that are lost to it. The true personal testimonies of children forced to work in Indian rug factories, young women sold to Eastern European brothels and men forced to work in African mining fields will long stay in the back of your thoughts. In fact, the experience will haunt you long after you’ve left the building.

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Modern slavery and human trafficking takes many forms: domestic servitude, sex trafficking, forced labor, child soldiers, indentured servitude, child slavery. Together, they are a global injustice affecting an estimated 12-27 million people at any one time, a range so broad due to the clandestine nature of the trade. It also just so happens to be a multi-billion dollar business, generating $44.3 billion dollars each year.

Slavery and trafficking affect people of all ages, all backgrounds and ethnicity  and both sexes. It occurs in developed and developing countries alike, and particularly in times of instability like armed conflict.

Women and girls are most vulnerable to being trafficked and forced into slavery. Consider the statistics from the 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report :

  • 55% of forced labor victims are women and girls
  • 98% of sex trafficking victims are women and girls
  • 4.5 million victims are sexually exploited

The 2012 UNODC Global Report of Trafficking in Persons reports that:

  • Trafficking of girls accounts for 15-20% of the total number of victims from 2007-2010
  • The number of detected women victims has declined somewhat in recent years, however the number of girls has risen

Trafficking is a crime with a strong gender bias towards women and girls.

If you happen to end up in the area, come by and check out the Freedom Center. It’s an amazing learning experience that will educate you, depress you, but most importantly inspire you to take action to fight slavery and trafficking in your own community. Don’t miss the slavery and trafficking exhibit, and if you get there before March be sure to check out the Half the Sky temporary exhibit! Oh yes, you read that correct. There is an exhibit there devoted solely to the Half the Sky movement (and if you know anything about Girls’ Globe, you know we’re BIG fans of Half the Sky)!

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If visiting isn’t an option any time soon, the Freedom Center website offers a wealth of useful and practical suggestions on how you, no matter where you are in the world, can become a modern day abolitionist. If you haven’t yet watched the recent Google+ hangout, covered by our Girls’ Globe founder Julia Wiklander, featuring our heroes against slavery and human trafficking Nick Kristof, Somaly Mam, and Rachel Loyd. You may have notice that the moderator was Luke Blocher Director of Contemporary Slavery Initiatives at the Freedom Center!

Check out these Freedom Center partner organizations around the world who are working towards freedom:


…and learn more about slavery and trafficking with these book suggestions:

  • Half the Sky
  • A Crime So Monstrous
  • The Road of Lost Innocence

Consider how slavery has looked in your country in the past and how it compares to today. Does your country/ state/ city have a history of slavery? What about those around you? Who were the victims? Have you seen any signs of slavery today? How do the victims compare to those in the past? How does the work compare? Use the Freedom Center and these resources to start educating yourself and raise awareness in your community today.

Pictures taken by Sally Pope at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.