Success Stories

“Scars Still Remain”: A Decades-Old Story in Burma

Tin Tin Nyo, General Secretary of Global Fund for Women grantee partner Women’s League of Burma at Karenni refugee camp on Thai-Burmese border.

Tin Tin Nyo, General Secretary of Global Fund for Women grantee partner Women’s League of Burma at Karenni refugee camp on Thai-Burmese border.

Around 9 a.m. on the morning of October 30, 2013, 15-year-old Sumlut was gang-raped by three soldiers including a Captain in Waingmaw Township, Kachin State, the northernmost state in Burma.

Sumlut’s story is all too familiar. For over half a century, the story has been the same in Burma. Systematic sexual violence and horrible human rights abuses continue to be waged in ethnic conflict areas despite Burma’s transition to a civilian government, including adoption of a new Constitution in 2008 and elections in 2010.

“The formal war has stopped, but fighting still continues,” says Tin Tin Nyo, who has served as General Secretary of Global Fund for Women grantee partner Women’s League of Burma (WLB) since 2011. “Burma may be open, but the scars still remain.”

Recognized as the world’s longest-running civil war, the conflict in Burma between the military regime and various ethnic groups, which began in 1948 just after the country’s independence, has been widely misunderstood and ignored by the international community. The horrific stories of sexual violence and rape used by the military as a weapon of war have been documented by Women's League of Burma, an umbrella organization comprising 13 women’s organizations of different ethnic backgrounds. For over a decade, despite significant security concerns and access limitations, it has published multiple reports shedding light on the Burmese military’s crimes against humanity including rape and torture.

In its latest report, Women’s League of Burma documents multiple instances of sexual violence involving over 100 women, including 47 gang rapes with victims as young as 8 years old, since the democratic transition just four years ago. The organization believes these documented cases represent only a fraction of the abuses taking place.

Most women do not speak up due to fear of threats, intimidation, and punishment. Women are commonly threatened with repercussions if they talk to outsiders, including representatives of the United Nations. A villager from the Palaung area expressed these fears in WLB’s 2014 report, stating: “It is very difficult for the victims to speak out about rape. They were threatened by the soldiers not to tell anyone, so the rest of the community is scared.”

Many of the victims do not survive to share their story. 28 of the 100 women in cases documented in WLB’s most recent report were either killed or died of their injuries. In a 2004 report, WLB describes a 13-year-old girl from Shan state who was captured and raped repeatedly for 10 days based on accusations that she was cooperating with rebels; she eventually died from her wounds.

“Women and girls, especially those from ethnic groups, have been abducted, enslaved, and subjected to sexual violence with many killed subsequently,” explains Tin Tin Nyo.

Women and children in Burma have carried the most extensive impact of the conflict – as is too often the case in conflicts worldwide. In November 2012, WLB reports a 26-year old woman was gang-raped by seven soldiers who then threatened to kill her husband if he reported the incident, saying: “Even if you tell other people, there is no one who will take action. We have the authority to rape women.” After reporting the incident anyway to the head of their village, no action was taken.

Over the years, the climate of impunity for military rape has escalated in Burma. Evidence suggests that authority figures routinely commit violent acts because they know they will not be punished. Systematic, brutal rape and sexual violence against women and girls has been used by the military to impose the government’s power, demoralize ethnic minorities, humiliate women and their communities, and create a sustained culture of fear and impunity.

“Rape is used in my country as a weapon against those who only want to live in peace, who only want to assert their basic human rights,” stated pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 2011.

Refugees International reported in 2003 that some evidence indicates “soldiers use rape to coerce women into marriage and to impregnate them so they will bear ‘Burman’ babies, known as a campaign of ‘Burmanization’.” Burmese law criminalizes abortion in all instances except when the mother’s life is endangered and strictly forbids abortion in cases of rape.

In 2004, WLB concluded: “These stories bear witness to the fact that, despite the regime’s claims to the contrary, nothing has changed in Burma.” A decade later, painfully, these same words can be echoed: “nothing has changed in Burma.”

Despite mounting obstacles and government inaction against the cycle of violence, Women’s League of Burma remains committed to empowering women by expanding political participation and securing inclusion in peace and security processes, and advancing the status of women from all ethnic groups through capacity building, advocacy, research, and documentation.

“We are working very hard for women to be included at all levels,” explained Tin Tin Nyo. “If women are excluded from the process, the post-conflict plan might not include consideration for women… They might overlook [violence against women], and might not reform gender-relevant laws.”

2015 will bring renewed work for WLB with Burma’s next parliamentary and Presidential elections.

“It’s our job as women’s human rights defenders not to be silent,” says Tin Tin Nyo. “With our own hands, we will build sustainable peace so that our next generation will not have to go through [a] miserable life as we have been through.”

Learn more: Watch Tin Tin speak about ending the cycle of violence in Burma.

 

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Wedding Crashers Shine a Spotlight on Child Marriage

Wedding Crashers Reveal Child Marriage in India

It was late afternoon when 14-year-old Reshma was getting ready for her wedding at a beauty parlor in the Old City of Hyderabad. Reshma was one of 33 brides, all under the age of 18, to be married that night in an illegal ceremony at 3 a.m.

Reshma thought marriage was her only option until she met the girls of Global Fund for Women grantee partner, Shaheen, at the beauty parlor. The girls, all survivors of forced marriages, search beauty parlors in the Old City, looking for others just like Reshma who are preparing for weddings they don’t want. Shaheen finds out where the marriage is taking place and organizes what they call “sting operations” – going in a group, with video cameras and journalists, to stop the wedding. They expose the wedding guests: religious leaders and police who receive bribes for turning a blind eye to the law, along with family members and of course, the groom. The group also started a hotline for child brides to call when they need help stopping a forced marriage.

At the ceremony, Reshma had the women power of Shaheen behind her to refuse her marriage. And it worked. After 18, she married a man of her choice and chose when to have her two children.

Speak Up!


Fill in the blank: I will marry when _______

Although the legal age for marriage in India is 18 for girls and 21 for boys, its 24 million underage child brides constitute nearly half of all child brides in the world. Shaheen changes this abysmal stat by working in the Old City, where two-thirds of residents live below the poverty line. They operate in 20 slums, with marginalized communities of Muslims and Dalits. According to Shaheen’s founder, Jameela Nishat, women in the Old City are not allowed to look men in the eye, and cannot attend local counsel meetings. The few public schools don’t have proper facilities and only serve girls up to age eight. Hospitals are few and far between.

Wealthy men from both inside and outside India take advantage of such rampant poverty by offering cash to parents if they sign temporary marriage contracts. They marry the girl, stay in Hyderabad for a brief period during which time they rape and abuse her, and then leave town and their bride behind. According to Jameela it is common for girls to be forced to marry multiple times – she knows one girl who has been married and divorced 17 times before the age of 16.

Girls between the ages of 10 and 18 who escape the abuse and rape in a forced marriage, come to Shaheen for shelter, education, and healthcare. Determined to stop the practice of child marriage, the women and girls of Shaheen document every sting operation and bring the names of those involved to the police, even though, according to Jameela, police don’t have a good track record of enforcing the minimum age of marriage law. And if the marriages happen within Muslim communities, they claim it’s out of their jurisdiction. Despite arguments made to justify the practice of child marriage, including religious and cultural beliefs and deep-rooted traditions, child marriage is a form of violence. Child marriage is rape and robs a girl of her future; it forces her to drop out of school and give birth when her body is not ready.

“We can’t do anything unless we have stringent laws, which is what we’re working on,” said Jameela, who collaborates with other NGOs and lawyers to change the minimum age of marriage to 18 instead of “maturation” in Muslim law.

In addition to crashing weddings, Shaheen works with survivors of rape and incest. In India, a woman is raped every 20 minutes and 98 percent of reported rapes name parents, relatives and neighbors as the perpetrators. After a girl's husband cut her nose off when she was 8 months pregnant, neighbors took her to the hospital to deliver the baby. She came to Shaheen to heal and now walks at night with other survivors, door-to-door, talking to families about ways to stop the cycle of violence.

While the women and girls of Shaheen are making progress, we still have a long road ahead. India, which has more child brides than any nation in the world, decided not to co-sponsor a United Nations initiative to end child marriage.

Support groups like Shaheen so they can hold their governments accountable and end child marriage. Donate today!

 

Meenu's True Story of Girl Power in India

Safe World for Girls

Meenu Rawat writes her own not-so-comic book with a real girl hero. Flip through the pages of her graphic novella to find out how grantee partner, Feminist Approach to Technology, uses the power of tech to empower girls to stand up against violence in Delhi. Download Meenu's graphic novella »

Created by Meenu Rawat and Lydia Holden. Illustrated by Izzie Klingels, designed by Daniel Hawkins, and edited by Megan Shank.

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Girls in Malawi Will Marry When They Want

Girls in Malawi play for keeps

When she isn’t studying at the University of Malawi, 17-year-old Memory is shooting videos and snapping photographs of girls talking about their dreams for the future.

When Memory was 14, her 12-year-old sister got pregnant. After leaving an abusive husband, it was her mother’s job to keep the two girls safe and healthy in their rural community in the Chiradzulu District of southern Malawi.

"In a village where you see one of [the girls] getting pregnant, especially the young one, you feel a lot of pressure. People asking ‘what about you?’ Everyone viewed my mother as a mother who does not take care of her children, which was not true. I had to be different. I didn’t’ want to be like my little sister, but I knew that other girls were going through what [she] was going through."

GENET Wants To Hear From You!


Fill in the blank: I will marry when _______

The Situation for Girls

Extreme poverty in Malawi causes many families to invest their money and time in the boy because he is assumed to have the greatest chance of financially supporting the family when he gets older. Girls on the other hand are viewed as financial burdens and failures. They grow up with low self-esteem, dependent on men for their survival; the best way a girl can serve her family is to get married, ideally to a wealthy man. So it’s no surprise that one out of every two girls in Malawi will be married by her 18th birthday – one of the highest rates of forced marriage in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Memory was determined to buck the stats; that’s when she heard about Girls Empowerment Network-Malawi (GENET). She became a volunteer in the girl empowerment program, leading discussions and producing documentaries to change the conversation about the value of girls. GENET’s approach to ending child marriage is completely girl-centered. Whatever they do, from the way the organization is staffed, to how it advocates for laws to protect girls from early marriage, girls are front and center. They build the leadership skills necessary to change the situation for themselves and others.

"GENET has made me strong and so wise about my decisions," said Memory. "It has removed the fear I had to explore the opportunities in life. Little girls look up to me as a role model and say, 'I want to be like you.'"

Eyes on the Prize

Memory isn’t GENET’s only fan. Local and national leaders are hailing Chitera in Chiradzulu District as a model community. School enrollment among girls has increased by over 50 percent since 2011, just three years after GENET received its first Global Fund for Women grant. Cases of child marriage are few and far between, and girls are speaking up when their rights are being violated.

Malawian law stipulates that girls can legally marry with parental consent at 15, but girls like Memory know firsthand, the pitfalls of early marriage. Child brides are almost always married to older men, and lack the standing to negotiate sex or birth control. Many get pregnant soon after marriage, when their bodies are too underdeveloped or too small to handle it. Girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s, according to the International Center for Research on Women.

GENET has its eyes on the big prize: reforming the minimum marriage-age law. They organized a writing contest in 10 schools, asking girls about their feelings on child marriage. They hosted photo workshops where girls learned to tell their stories through art. The 2,200 responses turned into “I Will Marry When I Want To,” a publication used in meetings with members of parliament and other decision makers.

Memory’s younger sister is now a mother of two and admires her as an example of girl empowerment and success.

"It has been such a long journey, and I never thought I would be where I am [today]. It’s because of GENET that I can say 'I’m here now!'" said Memory.

Learn more about how GENET is ending child marriage in Malawi. Download the case study »

 
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