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Breaking the Silence

Vendors, Burma (

Vendors, Burma (Donna Cymek/Flickr)

E. Breaking the Silence

It can be seen that women face added burdens when suffering from the effects of poverty and environmental degradation. However, in struggling for their whole family to survive, women have increasingly come out of their traditional role of being supported and protected by men. Many migrate to neighbouring countries to have some income to support their family back home. A significant number join and support the pro-democracy movement. Some have even participated in the armed struggle to defend themselves, their family and their community.

Trying to survive in a different environment, women are organizing themselves to respond to the needs of fellow women and girls within and around the community. Women are developing strategies to survive, overcome and cope with the situations they are put into and to resist.

The following examples have proven how women are dealing with the problems in the positive ways.

1. Health issues

i) Doctor Cynthia (42): Fleeing from arrest and persecution by the military following the crackdown on the nationwide pro-democracy uprisings, Dr. Cynthia Maung arrived at Mae La, a Karen refugee camp on the Thai- Burmese border in October, 1988. In February 1989 some Karen friends donated an unused barn on the border to Cynthia, to treat the Burmese pro-democracy students who had fled to the border. Cynthia sought donations from medical organizations and religious groups and catered for the patients.

After the twelfth year of operation, Dr. Cynthia's Mae Tao Clinic has grown into a multispeciality center providing free health care for refugees, Burmese migrant workers and others crossing the border from Burma into Thailand. Though exact numbers are difficult because of the fluidity of the patient population, the clinic serves a target population of 150,000 on the Thai-Burma border. The staff of 5 physicians, 80 health care workers, 40 trainees and 40 support staff provide comprehensive health services including inpatient and outpatient medicine, trauma care, blood transfusion, reproductive health, child health, eye care, and prosthetics for landmine survivors. The Clinic also hosts interns from local ethnic groups for 3 to 6 month periods. Each year it trains a new class of Healthcare workers to serve people throughout the border region.

ii) Backpack Program (43): Initiated in 1995 by Dr. Cynthia, who is the Director of the program, the backpack health worker team was created in August 1998 to respond to IDPs' health issues. The team's principle aim is to conduct a primary healthcare program to reach the isolated IDP areas within Burma. There are 60 teams providing health care to an estimated 130,000 displaced people in Karen, Mon, and Karenni areas. There are two to three health workers in each team, which serves an average population of 2000. These health workers are community-based and work with village leaders, traditional birth attendants (TBA's), and traditional healers. Their activities include primary health care services, training of traditional birth attendants, collecting and analyzing health data and upgrading the knowledge and skills of health workers. In 2001 approximately 200 TBA's were trained by the backpack health workers in the field and provided with supplies to conduct safe deliveries and promote women's health.

2. Education issues

i)School of Shan State Nationalities Youth (44): The school was founded by Nang Charmtong, a young Shan lady in her early 20s who has never spent more than a month with her parents since she was eight due to the civil war. Having grown up in the circle of the Shan resistance movement, Nang Chamtong got to know how the civil war had affected the livelihood of the Shan people and the education of youth and children, as she herself was sent from Shan State to a village on the Thai/Burma border to study. She has known the flow of Shan refugees into Thailand -- many of them youth and children. She has seen many young men end up working as unskilled labourers and young girls in the sex industry. There is an urgent need for proper education for Shan youth, who want to further their studies or to participate in the political arena more actively and effectively. To respond to the educational needs of the unrecognised children and youth refugees, who are working as undocumented migrant workers in Thailand, the school was set up in 2001. It also aims at preventing young refugees, who have little opportunity to access the Thai educational facilities, from being forced into crime and prostitution.

ii) Burmese Migrant Workers Education Committee: Chaired by an experienced elderly Karen woman teacher known as Naw Lae Lay, the committee was formed in July 2000. Currently there are about 30 schools in the area along the border in Tak Province, Thailand, where children of Burmese migrant workers can access education.

3. Social and environmental issues

Women have set up their own programmes or joined various social and environment organizations particularly operating in Thailand and the border areas to respond to the needs of people from Burma.

One example of an organisation tackling social and health issues of women working in the entertainment industry is EMPOWER, which has four centres in Thailand. Its basic philosophy and objective is to empower women in the entertainment industry in Thailand through education and information. Ann, who originally comes from Burma, is the coordinator of EMPOWER (Maesai). Having worked in Thailand since the age of thirteen, Ann has done many jobs, and has known a lot of girls who are doing different types of jobs including in the entertainment industry. She has been familiar with how they became involved in their work, what they do, and how they try to survive and protect themselves. Through them, she learned about EMPOWER (Chiangmai) where she had a chance to learn Thai, computer skills and about women's and health issues. She started to work there in 1996 and produced an audio-education program on HIV/AIDS in Akka language. There are many women from Burma working in the entertainment industry in the towns bordering with Burma. To give education and information to them, EMPOWER (Maesai) was set up in 1999. (45)