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.

I Am That One in Ten

Imagine it.

It is a hot summer day. You are a 19-year-old girl living and studying in a foreign city. You are excited to get to school because you are wearing your cute new summer dress. You squeeze onto a metro for your morning commute, your backpack facing forward to more closely protect your valuables. You and your fellow riders are packed in like sardines, so tightly packed that you cannot move your arms from down by your sides and can take neither a half-step forward nor backward. You feel your neighbor’s breath on your back. It is annoying and frustrating but, so far, it is nothing out of the ordinary.

Then it happens.
Image c/o Flickr Creative Commons

You are standing next to, or should I say, pushed up against a tall middle-aged businessman wearing a fedora. You feel something in his coat pocket press against your leg. All the passengers are crammed together so you give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, he looks just as uncomfortably cramped as you. It’s probably just a pen in his pocket.

With every passing moment, the pen presses slightly deeper into your upper thigh. You look down but your backpack is blocking your view so you nervously try to convince yourself it is still an accident, still a pen. After all, the train is incredibly crowded and you don’t want to be a bother or embarrass him by making false accusations. Plus, you will be getting off in three stops so it wouldn’t be worth the hassle.

Except you can’t ignore it. The pen’s pressure increases and shifts to your inner thigh, slowly creeping upward towards your underwear. And then there’s no denying it. That is not a pen in the businessman’s jacket pocket. That is his finger. Two stops to go.

You are suddenly as alert as a deer in headlights. You look nervously at him but he is staring straight ahead. Your heart begins to race and you feel a bit short of breath. You cannot move your feet. You cannot move your arms. The crowded metro you once considered merely frustrating has instantly become dangerous and frightening. You realize you are stuck standing on a train with a strange man’s finger pressing against your vagina. One stop to go.

Time seems to stop. One second becomes one minute. One minute becomes one year. What you previously though to be ‘only’ three stops has become an eternity. You anxiously try to string together a few words to tell the man to move but, in ordinary circumstances, your foreign language skills are mediocre at best – and these aren’t ordinary circumstances. You can’t think about anything except that the strange man’s hand is pressing harder and harder against your vagina. His hand is pressing against your vagina. His hand is pressing against your vagina.

You hold your breath, close your eyes, and wait for your stop.

Your station finally arrives and you practically jump off the train, glancing at the man as you pass. He gives you a sly smile, saying it all without saying a word.

Unfortunately, I don’t have to imagine it. I lived it.

A new UNICEF study found one in ten girls under age 20 worldwide (approximately 120 million) has experienced forced intercourse or other forced sexual act. I am that one in ten. And although my experience with sexual harassment happened nearly ten years ago and pales in comparison to those who have survived worse abuse, I still remember every detail, every second, as if it happened yesterday.

However, if any good came from my experience, it is that I vowed never to stay silent again. I promised myself that, if anyone else made me uncomfortable, I would speak up loudly and protect myself. As it would turn out, I would not have to wait long to get my chance.

A few weeks later, I was taking the train home with a few of my girl friends after a night out. Even though the train was fairly empty and many seats were available, we opted to stand, reminiscing on the night’s excitement as the train rushed on.

Suddenly, I noticed a man in the window’s reflection. He had gotten up from his seat and was wandering slowly towards us, staring at us, approaching me from behind. There was hardly anyone else on the train. Why was he walking towards us when the other door was closer?  I no longer heard my friends’ conversation, all my energy went to watching the man’s movements in the window’s reflection. He was getting closer and closer, now only a few feet away. I couldn’t take it any longer. I spun around and yelled, “Ne me touches pas!” (Don’t touch me!) as loud as I could.

This time he was the one who looked like a deer in headlights. The man instantly stopped in his tracks as if frozen in time. We got off the train at the next stop and I, my heart still racing, let a sense of empowerment and exhilaration overwhelm me, fill me.

Overlooking the mountains in Petra, Jordan
Overlooking the mountains in Petra, Jordan

I will never know for sure if that man meant any harm to me or my friends. But what I do know is that I will never allow anyone to make me feel the way I felt after my encounter with the man and his ‘pen.’ If that means that I may mistakenly yell at an innocent bystander who meant no harm, so be it. Even accompanied by embarrassment, the feeling of empowerment trumps the feeling of disgust and degradation.

In the Field with the SEED Community

This is the third in a series of posts written by the SEED community chronicling their journey into the rural heartland of Limpopo, South Africa with 25 girls who are a part of the SEED program. The trip was a part of the urban/rural exchange filmed to capture the voice of young women of South Africa. The journey was documented through journal entries by SEED staff and each Friday for 5 weeks Girls’ Globe is publishing a new entry. 

Day 5

Photo Courtesy of the SEED Community
Photo Courtesy of the SEED Community

Show time! Amidst the ululating of the community we find ourselves prostrate on the floor in honour to the chief. The performances are extraordinary. Song and dance are a platform for African women to share her voice. Their power captivates and intoxicates one’s senses. Dressed in traditional venda dress, their feet pound the earth, their voices carrying the melody of the untold stories that lie within. The issues of teenage pregnancies, rape, education and substance abuse are brought to life through short plays, poems and songs created and performed by each group. They do not hold back giving a raw portrayal of how these issues affect them. As the show draws to a close, the heavens open and once more we are offered the blessing of rain.

We have all felt a strong bond to this community. We have been embraced by their warmth, honesty, trust and enthusiasm. It has been an intense 4 days and there is a collective feeling that we have planted the seeds for strong friendships. Everyone has given a 110% and with a certain sadness we board the buses to head south.

With a late departure our arrival into Leyden was delayed. The lush vegetation of the north has given way to flat grassy plains broken by rocky mountains. We arrived long after night fall, everyone hungry, exhausted and in need of a good nights sleep. We are met by some local girls who had been practicing a dance they wanted to perform for us. They all seem to speak English and we are hopeful the next days are going to be a lot of fun. We dropped the girls to their host families and agreed to meet first thing in the morning.

In the Field with the SEED Community

This is the second in  a series of posts written by the SEED community chronicling their journey into the rural heartland of Limpopo, South Africa with 25 girls who are a part of the SEED program. The trip was a part of the urban/rural exchange filmed to capture the voice of young women of South Africa. The journey was documented through journal entries by SEED staff and each Friday for 5 weeks Girls’ Globe will publish a new entry. Read the first post in the series here.


Day  3:

The heavens have opened! The rain is torrential, another blessing in the eyes of the Venda people. We are not so sure and arrive at the hall with the uncertainty of who will come back today. Slowly as the rain dissipates, the hall fills once more, the girls are chatty and eager to begin. Song fills the room, girls break into traditional dance, the atmosphere is electric. Music is their redemption and takes on a power that touches the soul.

As the group discussions get under way, the local girls seem to have found their voice and the individual stories of rape, abuse, teenage pregnancies abound. The room pervades an overwhelming sadness and at the same time there is a certain relief as the stories have been met with such open understanding. So many of the girls share similar stories they are able to unite in their sadness and provide each other with the security, they are not alone.

 Our interviews are an intimate reflection of the mood inside the hall. Despite the enormous challenges girls face, the silence they have been encouraged to keep for the reputation of their families; they continue to hold their heads high, as they feel with God’s grace, this is the life they were meant to lead.

It has been a long day and we all go home to our families, deeply grateful to be here together.

Day 4:

The day begins early and the girls are all keen to get into their discussions. Today each group will spend time giving expression to the topics they have been discussing. The sun has returned, everyone moves outside and once more song fills the air from all corners of the playground.

We will be spending most of our time interviewing both girls from SEED and from the local community. They have decided to come forward to share their story and for some of the girls, it will be for the first time. As the stories unfold we are left speechless at the unforgiving intensity of these girls lives. Rape, violence, and teenage pregnancies are a common thread woven into each of their lives. But faith, courage and hope are also deeply woven into their tapestry and every girl considers their life to hold possibilities to fulfil their goals. They are able to share their stories for they are no longer bound by them, rather they belong to their history and they will not allow them to determine their future. These are the voices that need to be heard, for despite the enormous challenges these young women have faced, they have such strength, wisdom and determination to make their world a better place, not only for themselves but also for their children.

Violence against women and girls: Business as usual is not enough

This week, we at Girls’ Globe are raising awareness about every-day violence against women and girls. Earlier this week, Gary Haugen, founder of International Justice Mission published The Locust Effect, a book that paints a shameful picture of the lives of millions of poor people to whom experiencing violence is more a rule than an exception.

Though it’s clear that the road to a violence-free world remains long and that progress is currently too slow and too uneven, a lot is still happening in every corner of the world. Identifying promising interventions and celebrating success is important, and leveraging programs that have potential for scale-up and replication is crucial for sustainable progress on the road towards a violence-free world. At Girls’ Globe, we celebrate innovation and out-of-the box ways to deal with challenges that girls and women face around the world – and violence against women and girls is most definitely a challenge that needs to be tackled from all angles, and with innovative approaches.

We need innovation, because business as usual is simply not enough anymore. We need new tools, new programs, new players, new messages – because what we are doing now is not working well enough, or fast enough.

So how do we innovate to end violence against girls and women? Many organizations are using new technologies to end violence and increase women’s and girls’ safety. Platforms such as HarassMap, launched in Egypt in 2011, allow women and girls to report incidences of violence which are geotagged, helping users to identify hotspots for violence. Last year, the World Bank organized a hackathon in Kathmandu to create mobile applications to end gender-based violence. Similar hackathon was also organized to address domestic violence in Central America. Technology can be used to share messages that promote social and normative change, to allow women to report incidences of violence, and access information on what their rights are and where to get help.

Photo courtesy of UN Women/Fatma Elzahraa Yassin

Non-technology based innovations are equally, if not more, important. Many poor people still lack access to ICTs, and therefore non-technology innovations are crucial for ensuring that progress reaches the most poor and most marginalized. Every year, the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women provides grants to organizations around the world working on ending violence against women and girls. Last year, grants were given to Grassroot Soccer in South Africa, an organization using soccer and sports as a way to foster girls’ empowerment; a project in Fiji that included establishing mobile health clinics to provide improved access to sexual and reproductive healthcare and sexual assault counseling and referral services; and a project in India that aims to change prevailing accepting attitudes towards violence against women and girls through a multi-pronged approach involving use of media, community mobilization and leadership training – among others. Many of the funded projects also address the issue of weak or non-existent laws or insufficient implementation and enforcement of laws – a topic that is covered in detail in The Locust Effect.

Violence puts at risk all other aspects of women’s and girls’ lives – their health, their education, their independence, their income, their ability to made decisions and participate in their communities, their empowerment – their life. It is clear that there is no silver bullet to this problem, no magical solution, no one size fits all model – but what is also clear is that it takes all of us to change the reality that millions of women and girls face every day: A reality filled with violence and fear. Change starts from the grassroots, from awareness that turns into action, and we each have a role to play. YOU can start by finding ways to volunteer in your community; by speaking and standing up against violence everywhere; and by visiting The Locust Effect to learn more  about the universal plague of violence and about what you can do to help. Time to think outside the box and step up the efforts – there is simply no more time to waste.

GG IJM Twitter Chat

Featured image courtesy of Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank

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.

Take Action!