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Daring to speak: militarism and women’s human rights in Burma

‘How can we get peace and democracy when we still have domestic wars and when everyday people are dying?’ Jessica Nhkum spoke to Jennifer Allsopp at the Nobel Women's Initiative conference in Belfast about the importance of documenting human rights violations, injustices and inequality on the ground in Burma

Jennifer Allsopp: Jessica, could you begin by introducing yourself and by telling us about your work with the Kachin Women’s Association?

Jessica Nhkum: My name is Jessica Nhkum and I’m from the northern part of Burma. I belong to the Kachin ethnic group. I currently work with the Kachin Women’s Association in Thailand as Joint General Secretary. Our organisation mainly works for the rights of women and children. It was founded in 1999 in Chang Mai, Thailand but 90% of our work is inside Burma. We operate the office outside Burma because it’s more convenient for our communications and advocacy work. If we were based inside Burma we wouldn’t be able to speak out and to publish the reports that we are publishing, such as our recent report, State terror in the Kachin hills.

I joined the organisation in 2006 and straight away I learnt a lot that was new to me about the human rights violations, injustices and inequality that were going on inside Burma, especially in relation to women. I became very interested and started to feel that I also needed to work for women and for my country; to improve the place of women in our community. So I continued working with the organisation and now it’s been almost 8 years.

JA: Can you tell me a bit more about the kind of human rights violations, injustices and inequality you encounter in your work, in particular in relation to women?

JN: In Burma there’s a strong hierarchy system and the government is, well, it’s a military government. The military government has been ruling now for over 60 years. There was a change in 2010 when the current government came to power, but this government is mostly made up of members of the former military government. I was talking at the conference earlier about the high number of rape cases in Burma committed by the Burmese military soldiers. Women in the villages deal with these kind of cases and then, of course, they also face domestic violence. So we still need to empower women a lot in our country. Women are still afraid to speak out for themselves.

As well as being oppressed by the government and the military, in Burma women are also oppressed culturally. They are oppressed in their houses, in schools, and in the workplace. To attend a medical school in Burma, for example, a girl has to have higher grades than a boy. If the boy can get into medical school with a score of 500, the girl needs to have score of 520 or something like that. So this is one example of the kind of specific ways in which women are oppressed in Burma. When I was in Burma I didn’t know about these kinds of things.

This kind of gender inequality is very common in our society. Whenever we pick somebody to talk at a public event – or round a family table - it’s almost always a man, and everybody is happy with that. They cheer. If it’s a woman who has been invited to speak then she finds herself in a difficult situation: it’s hard because she lacks the confidence. She’s been oppressed for many years. Often women don’t even dare to speak.

In Burma the educational system and health services are also very bad because our government isn’t taking care of the people, and this also relates to gender inequality. The issue of reproductive health for women is especially difficult. We don’t have local clinics and there is hardly any awareness raising about reproductive health. As a result, at the moment there is a problem with unwanted pregnancy, unsafe abortion, and the transmission of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs). We come across cases of abortions which have led to the deaths of women, and this is all down to poor access to healthcare.

One area we work on at KWAT is capacity building so that we can train women and increase their awareness of their rights. We also tell them about opportunities to study, learn and work – we help them to find out who they are, what they’re interested in and what is good in themselves so that they can build their confidence to work. And then we also have a health programme. We have a clinic on the Burma -China border which provides mother and child care for free. What we do is just small, but we do what we can.

JA: You were talking today on a panel about documentation techniques to increase survivors’ visibility. Could share some of what you were sharing with other participants today in your talk?

JH: I was talking about documentation because, as I said, we’re dealing with a lot of rape cases and cases of sexual harassment, also killings. These kinds of abuses are often perpetrated by individuals within the Burmese government military, so we document this data to seek justice. We don’t want to be quiet about these kinds of things. We know that this is happening and that the government has the responsibility to deal with it. We try to inform the international community that this is what is happening in Burma on the ground, in reality, right now. Most of the international community thinks that Burma is really changing now, but we want to show them that it’s not really changing that much in ethnic areas, so be careful in your judgement, please!

The human rights violation documentation work is very important in this sense because if we just talk and talk and don’t have any evidence then how can people believe us?

The truth is that the current government is still the military government and we don’t want to be going backwards. In Kachin state, the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and the Burmese military are still fighting, so how can we get peace and democracy when we still have domestic wars and when everyday people are dying? There are over 100,000 internally displaced people alone in the Kachin and Northern Shan State.  There’s no plan for these people – to help them to go back to their homes and have a normal life.

JA: What are the main challenges, and strategies that you have developed, in terms of getting your evidence recognized and acted upon?

Well getting evidence in the first place is very difficult. First we need to empower our community through trainings. We need to say that ‘these things are violations’ and also explain, ‘look, we need to speak up for ourselves!’ So that is why we collect the information and continue doing our work in this way in an effort to change our country.

Then, the evidence is not always recognized at the local or national level. There was a case in the wartime, I spoke about it earlier. The Burmese military, the soldiers, they took a woman to their barracks and then she disappeared. This was in 2011. The villagers said ‘oh she was dead, we saw she was with no clothes in the barracks. She’d been raped.’ She was dead, just like that. Of course we didn’t see it ourselves, but the girl’s husband and father-in-law appealed a letter to the Kachin State court and also to the Myanmar Supreme Court .They didn’t get a reply. So in Burma it’s still very difficult to work to find justice, even though we’re facing violations every day. One of our colleagues is currently making a documentary film about the case to raise awareness. I think it will come out on our website soon.

JA: The Nobel Women’s Initiative, which is hosting this conference, was set up by a group of female Nobel Peace Prize laureates.  Does having a female Nobel Peace Laureate from Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, impact on your work?

JN: Actually, when Aung San Suu Kyi was in jail we hoped that when she was released she’d work for women’s human rights a lot. The problem is that now she is cooperating with the government and she works in the parliament. Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), only holds 6% of the parliament and even the military gets 25% of seats, so I’m not sure how she can convince lots of people in the parliament to change the laws. In our constitution, in order to adopt a law and to change a law you need over 75% of people to agree. If the military permanently has 25% of seats, how can we get over 75% to agree on certain reforms? I’m not sure that of the 25% even 5% will say yes. So this is a big challenge for her.

But actually it’s very good to have Aung San Su Kyi as a Nobel Woman for our country. I was saying to my friends from Burma last night that it’s great that here, at this conference, we can talk freely, discuss, think and ask questions to the Nobel Women from other countries, 6 of them, and they’re so friendly! I learn from them and I get encouragement from them because they are strong and they also give very specific advice. I would really like Aung San Su Kyi to talk like this to the young women human rights workers, so they can learn from her and also so that she can suggest how we can work and talk together.

Because, you know, sometimes if we work and work and work we feel tired, and then we want to stop. At this kind of conference we see people who are trying so hard and no matter how hard the situation is they gain successes, and then that makes you think, ‘Ok! We still need to try, we need to mobilise our community even more than we do now’.

Read more articles and interviews by Jennifer Allsopp reporting for openDemocracy 5050 from the Nobel Women's Initiative conference Moving Beyond Militarism and War: Women-Driven Solutions for a Nonviolent World, Belfast, Northern Ireland. Read 50.50's full coverage of the conference..

About the authors

Jennifer Allsopp is a writer and researcher working on migration, gender and social policy. She was a commissioning editor at openDemocracy 50.50 between 2011 and 2017, facilitating the People on the Move migration platform (2011-2017) and series including 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence (2012), Unlocking Detention (2014-15) and working with francophone activists for Our Africa (2012-14). She reported from numerous international feminist gatherings including for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (2015) and the Nobel Women's Initiative (2012, 2015, 2017). She has worked at the universities of Exeter, Birmingham and Queen Mary's and is completing a PhD at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at the University of Oxford. Twitter @JenniferAllsopp.

Jessica Nhkum is Joint General Secretary at Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT). She is the focal point for the Campaign Action Coordinating Team and the coordinator of the Adolescent Reproductive Health Zone.


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