Raising the Girl Agenda in Myanmar

We are still coming off the buzz of a really energetic and earnest Girls’ National Conference in Myanmar. Bringing together adolescent girls from across 70 diverse communities, the conference supported girls to work together and articulate an agenda to submit to regional and national lawmakers.

This agenda will be in the form of a letter. It will describe the barriers faced by girls in communities across Myanmar and the ways that law-makers can help to knock down these barriers so that all girls can achieve their full potential.

Last year, we made a big deal of International Day of the Girl – dedicating almost an entire season to it! We created opportunities for girls from all of our project communities to contribute directly to the development of an agenda for national and regional change – an agenda that would support girls’ development, education, access to safe work, freedom of movement, expression and beyond.

There were two key steps to making this work. Firstly, we held Regional Forums in 15 geographic hubs. Then, based on the outcomes from those events, we built the content and activities needed to make the National Conference both productive and deeply connected to the views and attitudes of adolescent girls.

In the lead up to those Regional Forums, our staff moved around the country with a mission to ensure every girl currently enrolled in our weekly leadership circles — over 3,000 girls — could attend a forum in her region. This would mean every girl could meet with others from nearby areas to discuss the specific, and sometimes invisible, barriers they share which can diminish self-perception and limit  choice.

Girls’ Regional Forums

The forums were focused on consensus-building activities. The day’s discussions were based on what we already knew about the situations of girls in different areas and the concerns girls have expressed to us in the past. In small groups, girls worked through various possible barriers to identify which applied most directly to their lives. They also discussed specific examples of times when, as a girl, they have encountered a barrier, been discriminated against, or felt unheard.

Girls’ National Conference

Immediately following the regional forums, we held our inaugural Girls’ National Conference in the City Hall of the ancient capital of Mandalay. The theme was “Girls, do you know you can fly?”  Attending the conference were 140 adolescent girls – peer-selected delegates representing nearly all of Girl Determined’s project communities.  Each spokesgirl shared on behalf of girls in her unique community, speaking out in a broader discussion with other girls facing sometimes similar and sometimes different issues.

Over two full days, the conference brought girls’ voices and experiences to the fore, while encouraging girls to act as change-makers in their communities and consider a different future for girls and women. Girls heard from one another and were introduced to basic concepts of civic action. Through consensus-building activities, they drafted a joint-letter expressing the concise needs of adolescent girls nation-wide.

Four main issues came out as the most detrimental to girls’ success in Myanmar:

    • inadequate or limited access to education
    • inadequate or limited access to health, nutrition, and sanitation needs
    • feeling unsafe and not knowing how to respond in dangerous situations
    • feeling unable to make decisions and express opinions about their own lives

We expect to see more girls taking issues into their own hands by expressing their needs in a structured way and demanding accountability by those in positions to make decisions.

Building On The Outcomes

Now that the conference has ended, two tasks remain.

Firstly, we will refine and revise the letter before the girls present it to members of parliament. A delegation of six girls from the conference will present the letter and express their concerns and hopes directly to parliamentarians.

Secondly, we will report back to ALL the girls who contributed their experience and insight on what their inputs have gone towards – both at the National Conference and during the direct appeal to lawmakers.

We will report back to all these girls through an article in our Wut Hmon magazine, and through a summary video of the National Conference.  This way, girls who weren’t at the national level gathering can see how their concerns were carried forth by their peers, and can experience the full process from regional forums to visits with parliaments.

We are excited to see how this plays out in the coming months, as girls’ voices resonate through Myanmar to create awareness of the hardships girls face, and of how they can rise up together.

World Refugee Day 2018

The number of people forcibly displaced from their homes worldwide hit a new record in 2017: 68.5 million. It’s the equivalent of 44,400 people each day, and means that the world’s forcibly displaced population is now greater than the total population of the United Kingdom.

Two-thirds of all refugees come from 5 countries: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar & Somalia. In March, the conflict in Syria entered its eighth year, with no end in sight. Since August last year, hundreds of thousands of people have fled to Bangladesh to escape violence in Myanmar. Millions from South Sudan have sought refuge in neighbouring countries.

Much of our news coverage remains focused on refugee resettlement in developed countries, or rather, on developed countries’ efforts to restrict access, block borders and, most recently, to tear families apart. However, figures show that developing regions host 85% of the world’s refugee population.

At least 1 in 5 refugees or displaced women in complex humanitarian settings have experienced sexual violence. Children make up 52% of refugees worldwide. 9 months on from the Myanmar military crackdown, thousands of Rohingya rape victims are giving birth in Bangladesh’s refugee camps.

The state of our world today will go down in history. Children will study it in classrooms of the future. And yet, as new reports roll in, numbers rise, conflicts persist, disasters strike and crises unfold, it can be difficult just to keep up, never mind to feel hopeful or inspired or useful.

This year, the statistics and stories shared to mark World Refugee Day feel overwhelming to me and the scale of our global crisis feels paralysing. But if nothing else, today is a much-needed reminder to stay informed, and to encourage the people around us to do so too.

This year, World Refugee Day is a reminder that no act is too small and that words have power. It’s a reminder to take breaks from scrolling and shopping and feeling disconnected to give ourselves time to read and listen and do what we can to remain aware. The world needs us to be informed so that we can speak, act and vote in ways that help us move into a future where all people can live in peace and security.

5 Easy Ways to Stay Informed this World Refugee Day:
  1. Read the new UNHCR report on global displacement.
  2. Read articles and look at photographs which highlight the humans behind the numbers.
  3. Read blog posts by women and girls around the world.
  4. Take time to research local organizations supporting refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants in your own neighborhood/country, and find out how you can best support them. It could be by donating money, volunteering your time or simply by helping to spread the word about their work.
  5. Celebrate examples of passionate collective action and remember: we are not powerless.

Amplifying Girls’ Voices in Myanmar

This year, the theme of International Women’s Day was #PressforProgressThe inclusion of diverse voices in the press is integral to an active and dynamic society. However, according to a recent report published by Myanmar Women’s Journalist Society, only 16% of voices in Myanmar news belong to women. Additionally, women are rarely sourced as ‘experts’ on a topic, and “female representation in Myanmar media is one of the lowest in Asia”.

The media matters because it has the ability to harm a girl’s confidence and self-perception, and to work against her best interests. It matters, too, because strong representation and diverse knowledge creation have the ability to play a positive role in a girl’s life. Media can influence a girl’s aspirations. It can influence her decisions and her behaviors around health, education, sex and work. Media can create opportunities to lift the needs and rights of girls to a higher status in their communities, and even in the public policy sphere.

However, challenges to access and control of media limit the potential benefits to the well-being of girls in Myanmar. Over the past few years, we have been experimenting and learning alongside girls to determine how to address these challenges and create opportunities for positive change.

We’d like to share two Girl Determined media-related initiatives putting girls in control of media analysis and creation.

One of the featured stories in our recent by-girls-for-girls magazine, ‘Pollinator’, came from an interview with female Myanmar journalist, Khin Su Kyi.  She spoke about the massive gap in representation of girls and women in media, both on and off screen. While there are a few recognizable women’s faces regularly seen, namely Nobel-Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, most girls and women are portrayed on screen in limited roles such as domestic housewives, mothers, or daughters.

According to Khin Su Kyi’s analysis, women in leadership roles are almost always depicted in the media in a singular, specific way – conservative, donning a well-tailored local sarong-set, in the appearance of an ethnic-majority Bamar, and as a practitioner of Buddhism. This singular depiction does not provide an aspirational role model for girls from different backgrounds, with varying ideas of who they are and who they want to be.  This representation tells girls, “if you don’t look like, speak like, and carry yourself this way, you shouldn’t aim to lead.”

The journalist encouraged girls from all walks of life to participate in media as producers, directors, journalists, or artists, which will in time inspire more girls to get involved and take on leadership roles. We love Khin Su Kyi’s analysis and encouragement, and we are working to provide pathways for girls to develop their understanding of media and representation, as well as to create opportunities for girls to engage in media creation.

Girls’ Leadership and Media Advocacy Summer Camp

Fifty girls from across the country recently gathered together near the top of a small mountain to enjoy the cool breeze and discuss media – particularly the representation of girls and how it impacts each of us. They talked about the myriad ways that media enters daily life, even in remote villages and camps for the internally-displaced; and how girls can start to use media channels in their communities to raise their concerns, challenges and perspectives, and to enhance their status.

The ‘Pollinator’ Magazine

The team has now completed two issues of ‘Pollinator,’ with the third in the works. The magazine process puts control into the hands of adolescent girls and legitimizes their voices and perspectives in print.  Over several months, the girl media team has worked closely with a local creative agency to develop the step-by-step process for content creation and layout design. Thanks especially to the grounded, thorough and insightful work of Bridge, we now have an amazing game which the girl media team plays to guide them through production, editing, reviewing, layout and the publication of each issue.

A page from the latest issue of Pollinator.

The result is an eye-catching, scrapbook-style magazine that represents the perspectives and ideas of the girls and young women involved. Having grown up with periods of intense media censorship and limited media access in general, this is the first time that girls in our programs have had the chance to be media creators. The process really gives girls the tools to succeed, and because it is not technical and almost fully ‘analog’, girls from across the country can participate. There are opportunities to write stories, commentary and poetry, as well as to feed directly into layout and design. It allows girls from across the country to spread their ideas.

Every girl has a voice and she must decide how she wants to use it.
It is up the rest of us to amplify her voice, and to listen.

Challenging Prejudices in Girls’ Circles

The following account, written by Aleta, comes from a Girl Determined Circle at a Buddhist monastery in a rural village on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar.

“They have beards…They are not welcome here…They are bad people,” explain the girls matter-of-factly when asked about Muslims.

In a country where divisive prejudices based on religion and culture have kept it at war with itself for over half a century, such beliefs are deeply rooted.  Myanmar is known for being predominantly Buddhist, a religion considered by outsiders as one of the most tolerant and peaceful, teaching that practicing kindness to others will bring an individual good karma. So, what has aroused such hatred towards another group of people?

Mud puddles linger on the small dirt field behind the monastery. The girls set up their makeshift bamboo-pole net and mark out boundary lines with small plastic cones, as they do routinely every week. Curious boys and younger children gather around the edges of the field to watch, and to fetch stray volleyballs.

The girls arrive in simple cotton trousers with t-shirts or light floral dresses, the muddy ground seeming not to deter them in the slightest. They go about their drills without hesitation – taking it in turns to set the volleyball back to the server, toes squelching in the mud and feet disappearing into puddles.  Mini matches follow, and in contrast with their early timid nature and orderly appearance, the girls’ behaviour gradually becomes more competitive as the session progresses and their confidence grows.

When the session ends, ‘Ma Josephine’, Girl Determined’s ‘Colorful Girls’ Sports Coordinator, sits down with a group of girls in their first year of the program. They have just completed a module on trafficking and safe migration, so the discussion veers towards unsafe situations and how to protect yourself. A few girls speak up to explain that they feel unsafe around men and around Muslim people. Picking up on the blatant discrimination and entrenched prejudices, Josephine reacts swiftly abut gently, bringing the issue closer to home by asking what the girls would think if a Muslim person came into their community.

“We would not like him…They would not be welcome here…He would be a bad person,” they answer without hesitation.

Similar answers continue until Josephine suggests the girls pause for a moment and think.  Using a calm voice, her next words seemed momentarily to stump the group: “What if I told you that I was Muslim? Would that make me a bad person? Would you not want to talk to me?”

“Well, we would still like you,” chime several of the girls, “We like talking to you…It wouldn’t matter then, because we know you and you are a kind and fun person.”

“So,” Josephine reasons, “just because someone has a certain belief or background that is different from you, does that mean that person is automatically bad?  No, it does not, because they might also be a nice and fun person.  Therefore, shall we agree that not all Muslims are bad people? And shall we perhaps not be too quick to judge someone based on a single piece of information about them, with a presumption that may or may not be accurate, but might instead be hurtful?”

There are nods of agreement and giggles from the girls, alongside a few genuinely contemplative faces.

Time is up and the session ends. That was all the time Josephine had available to unpack complex cultural myths, for it was only a short visit to a sports session, but already many of the girls had shown willingness to challenge the status quo. In that short time, a few girls’ seemingly steadfast prejudices had already been brought into question.

As you will have read in the media, there has been a recent surge in tragic violence in Myanmar’s westernmost Rakhine State. The violence, a complicated mix of communal distrust, military force and, of course, the realities of the history of the area, has prompted critical discussions in our weekly adolescent girls’ Circles.

Intended to be safe spaces, ‘Colorful Girls’ Circles and sports sessions enable girls to discuss issues, feelings, opinions and concern freely. Discussions about people who are ‘different’ are common and integral to our ethos. While a significant number of girls and staff in our programs come from minority groups, the composition of each Circle depends on the demographics of each community.

This session with Ma Josephine may have been the first time some of the girls had ever been prompted to think critically about their assumptions.  A seed had been planted in their minds, and even if they had not entirely changed their opinion, at least they had been presented with a different perspective and an opportunity to try understanding an issue that has fueled ongoing conflict for centuries.  In a country with one of the longest-standing civil wars, tolerance is nothing short of essential if peace and equal rights are to be realized.

While there is still much to be done, we are slowly but surely equipping more and more girls with the necessary skills and understanding around conflict resolution, human dignity, and the benefits of being ‘colorful.’

Balancing Passion for Education with Family Responsibilities

Education empowers girls with confidence and independence.  It provides girls with a path out of poverty, and it gives girls hope for a better life. Education is a silver bullet for empowering girls.  Education is the ANSWER.

But girls need access to education.  The primary barriers preventing girls’ access to education are lack of schools, distance to schools, conflict, hunger and poor nutrition, school fees, disabilities, and being the ‘wrong’ gender.

Even when girls have access, they are pulled out of school to help care for their families. They may be passionate about achieving an education, but they must balance that passion with family responsibilities.

Photo credit: Educational Empowerment

Ja Seng Mai understands this balancing act. Ja Seng Mai, 19 years old, is the eldest of five children, living in Myitkyina, Kachin State, Myanmar.

Even though I want to study and learn different subjects and attend the trainings like my other friends, my mom cannot afford to support all of us. Sometimes I feel angry and complain about my life and think why I can’t be like other people.”

Ja Seng Mai wants to be a good daughter and help her mom and siblings. So she works as a sales girl at the local Padonmar Store. In the evenings and weekends, she studies university courses online. She is now in her third year towards a zoology degree. However, these distance learning programs do not provide sufficient qualifications to obtain professional careers.

Recently, Ja Seng Mai was accepted into an exciting new program – Tech Age Girls (TAG). TAG is being implemented in Myanmar by IREX in partnership with Myanmar Book Aid and Preservation Foundation. Ja Seng Mai is one of 5 girls, ages 16-20, in Myitkyina to be selected to learn digital skills and leadership skills. During this time Ja Seng Mai will continue her sales job during the weekdays to help support her family.

The program runs for one year. During the first phase of 6 months, girls learn coding and data security skills. At that point, 3 of the girls are selected to move on to Phase 2 to learn online content skills and connect with female mentors. Finally, one girl is selected to advance to Phase 3 to attend basic ICT (information and communication technology) skills training. This finalist then conducts a community project using her newly developed skills.

By 2020, 85-90% of new jobs in Myanmar will require digital skills. Ja Seng Mai is obtaining valuable marketable skills to enable her to obtain a professional job. Her dedication to a pursuit of education is paying off for her.

Ja Seng Mai says, “I feel happy that I can help my mom to earn money.” At the same time, Ja Seng Mai is VERY happy to learn digital skills through the TAG program. She works hard to balance these two important priorities in her life.

ALL girls deserve access to education.

If you want to empower girls to achieve their right to education:

  • join Girls Globe conversations on Twitter @GirlsGlobe
  • become a champion for girls’ and women’s rights
  • donate to Educational Empowerment, and
  • let your voice be heard for girls worldwide!

EE empowers women and girls in SE Asia through education and equal opportunity, with a vision of improving socio-economic opportunity and creating gender parity. Please visit us at www.educationalempowerment.org and follow us on Facebook, Twitter @EEmpower, and on Instagram.

Investing in Gender Parity

The World Economic Forum predicts that global gender parity won’t be achieved until 2133.  None of us fighting for it today will be around then to see what it looks like.  Yet, each of us needs to take action now to ensure our children and grandchildren experience it.

Educational Empowerment (EE) generates gender parity through microfinance in a village outside Bago in Myanmar.  Here, in the dirt covered streets, microfinance creates opportunities for women living in poverty to start small businesses.  Women earn household income, and attain increased decision-making power, self-confidence, and community influence.

making cigars_opt_opt (1)Ma Thet and Lei Lei Win spend many hours together every day sitting on one of their porches rolling cigars.  They love to laugh and reminisce about when they were young and growing up in their village.  Ma Thet, a widow with five children, took a loan for $70 to help her continue her small cigar business.  While this may not seem like much to us, it is enough to allow her to run her cottage industry by herself, which then enables her children to stay in school rather than work to supplement the family income.

cooking 2_optMa Khin Cho runs a home shop, selling kitchen items, produce, and rice and coconut soup.  She has taken out and repaid two loans and is now using her third loan to build her business and invest in her shop. These low-interest loans empower Ma Khin Cho to significantly contribute to the family income and be an active participant in the village economy.

When a woman needs a haircut or a bride needs make-up for her special day, she goes to see Mu Mu Sein.  Her first loan was $40, her second was $50, and her third was $70.  She’s working to grow her business and buy more supplies and equipment.  The income helps her support her family and her young niece adopted after the girl’s mother disappeared on a business trip to Malaysia.

What do these women and the 400 other households who have taken out loans have in common?  100% payback!  Educational Empowerment is proud to support this loan program and empower these women.  This model also puts money back into the community by using some of the interest income to support the local school and health clinic.  Like these women, it’s beautiful.

Throughout the world, microfinance is acclaimed as THE answer to poverty and empowerment. However, if not done properly, it’s only a temporary fix. Educational Empowerment’s partner in Myanmar utilizes a model that is sustainable for the recipients. Women learn to stand on their own rather than being dependent forever on the ‘next loan’. And, their daughters are able to stay in school, rather than being pulled out to earn family income. Educational Empowerment is honored to be an essential part of creating gender parity in Myanmar through this investment.

You too can make a difference in the world’s fight for gender parity:

  • Join Girls Globe conversation on Twitter @GirlsGlobe.
  • Become a champion for women’s rights.
  • Donate to Educational Empowerment.
  • Let your voice be heard for women worldwide!

Educational Empowerment was created by women and for women and girls. EE promotes literacy and education for children, families and communities severely affected by poverty and injustice in Myanmar. By empowering women and girls through education, we position women in Myanmar to attain their equal rights.

Please visit us at www.educationalempowerment.org & follow us on Facebook,  Twitter, and Instagram.

Cover photo credit: ILO, Flickr Creative Commons