Text by Joshua Carroll, photo by Andrew Stanbridge
YANGON, Myanmar – For many teenage girls in Myanmar, something as simple as going for a walk or taking the bus alone can be a deeply distressing experience. Thanks to an ingrained belief that women and girls who appear in public unaccompanied by men are “loose,” sexual harassment and teasing are a constant threat.
This is part of the reason why in Yangon, the country’s largest city, men make up the majority of patrons in the teashops, chaotic social hubs where waiters yell orders over the clattering of dishes and the smell of cigarette smoke mingles with the vapours from sizzling pans. But the taboo against women and girls being alone in public causes damage that goes well beyond the impact on their social lives.
“This distinctly limits girls’ and women’s choices of employment, education, their friendship circles and leisure activities. It functions to keep girls who are in crisis or in any dangerous living or working situation from freely connecting with potential allies or services,” says Brooke Zobrist, the founder of Girl Determined, a group that aims to equip adolescent girls with the confidence and skills they need to deal with the challenges of gender inequality in Myanmar.
Often faced with domestic violence, pressure to start work at a young age, and pressure to marry early, girls entering adolescence find themselves with very few opportunities to make their own decisions and follow their ambitions. “Not only in Myanmar, but commonly around the globe, when a girl starts puberty, her world begins to shrink,” says Zobrist. “Adolescent girls often become more isolated.”
To help tackle this, the Girl Determined project operates weekly meetings, called circles, in towns, cities and villages around the country. During the sessions girls have the opportunity to talk about their experiences, fears and feelings in a safe non-judgemental environment. The other girls in the circle are not allowed to comment or interrupt, a rule that helps encourage the speaker to talk honestly and trust their peers. “For many girls this is the best part of their week,” says Zobrist, “people don’t often listen to adolescent girls.”
This is part of a curriculum that spans two academic years and includes sport and lessons in effective communication. When Girl Determined started five years ago, the programme only covered one academic year, but Zobrist and her colleagues found that a longer programme gives more consistency and “allows for the needed depth”.
Over 3,300 girls have now taken part in the circles, which in many cases have brought about positive changes in the home as the girls find the courage to speak up in front of their families and, importantly, develop the skills to encourage their superiors to listen to them.
Fourteen-year-old Wei Wei Kyaw, who has been given a pseudonym for this article, used to keep quiet while she was at home. But after joining the weekly sessions she was empowered to argue her case when her parents told her she should drop out of school. Only her brother, they said, would be able to carry on attending classes at their provincial school in central Myanmar.
“I told them, in a positive way, that both boys and girls are human beings and have equal rights to attend school,” said Wei Wei Kyaw. After that, she added, “my parents supported me … my family has begun to see that girls need to be empowered and educated.”
To help bring about change like this, facilitators at the circles teach topics such as “interpersonal communication,” where the objective might be to understand the difference between assertive, passive and aggressive speaking. First, girls discuss their understanding of the meaning of these terms, then they break into groups of three. Two of the girls act out scenarios and the third holds up a slip of paper to show whether she thinks the interaction is passive, aggressive, or assertive.
“I have noticed that girls are able to easily identify passive communications, but have a difficult time differentiating between being assertive and aggressive,” says Zobrist. “Quite a few girls say that this is one of the most useful sessions for them.”
The project is also helping girls who have been affected by conflict in northern Kachin state, where over 100,000 people have fled their homes since fighting broke out between rebels and the military in 2011. Girls who attend circles in the camp for internally displaced people there have a rare outlet for talking about their experience in the conflict and their fears of sexual violence and other threats.
The girls who joined the programme during its early years are just starting to move into young adulthood, staring university, getting jobs or joining family businesses. Several have also kept in touch with the program’s staff and are meeting the new cohorts of girls, says Zobrist.
“As we work with girls to reduce girls’ vulnerability while expanding opportunity, our measure of success is really told by girls’ personal stories of change. We look at girls continued growth after the programme. Does a girl keep working to make her own choices? Does she work for change in her community or place of work?”
For Shwe Yi, another of the girls who has also been given a synonym, that process is just beginning: “One major change has been that, since my family has come to see my abilities, I often participate in family discussions and decision-making,” she said. Her family are also keen to hear about her experience at the meetings. “It’s funny,” she said “it’s as if I’m their teacher.”
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