Girls Learn to Speak and Listen to Each Other
Dear friends and supporters,
This following account, prepared by Aleta comes from a Circle at a Buddhist monastery in a rural village in the outskirts of Yangon.
“They have beards … They are not welcome here … They are bad people,” explained the girls matter-of-factly when asked about Muslims.
In a country where divisive prejudices based on religions and cultures have kept it at war with itself for over half a century, these things are deep rooted. Myanmar is renowned for being predominantly Buddhist, a religion considered by outsiders as one of the most tolerant and peaceful, teaching that practicing kindness to others will bring you good karma as one of its main tenets. So, what could have aroused such hatred towards another group of people?
Despite the blue skies and cooler temperatures under the shade of the enormous trees, the heavy rains had not entirely ceased, and so the small dirt field behind the monastery was riddled with mud puddles. Nevertheless, the girls set up their make-shift bamboo pole net, marking out boundary lines with small plastic cones, as they did routinely every week. Curious boys and younger children gathered around the edges of the field to watch, and fetch stray volleyballs when they went out of bounds.
The girls arrived in simple cotton trousers with t-shirts and light floral dresses, the muddy ground seeming not to deter them in the slightest. They went about their drills without falter, each taking turns setting the volleyball back to the server, toes squelching in the mud and feet disappearing into puddles as they approached the front of their lines. Mini matches followed, and contrasting with their earlier timid nature and orderly appearance, the girls' behaviors gradually became more aggressive and competitive as the session progressed and they overcame their initial restraint.
When the session ended, Ma Josephine (our Colorful Girls Sports Coordinator) sat down with a group of girls in their first-year of the program to recap which topics they had been discussing lately. They had just completed the module on trafficking and safe migration, so the discussion veered towards unsafe situations and how to protect themselves. A few girls spoke up to explain that they felt unsafe around men and around Muslim people. Picking up on the blatant discrimination due to entrenched prejudices, Josephine acted quickly, bringing the issue closer to home by asking what they would think if someone came into their community who actually was a Muslim.
“We would not like him … She would not be welcome here … He would be a bad person,” answered the girls without hesitation.
Similar answers continued until Josephine gestured for girls to pause for a moment and think. In a calm voice, her response seemed to momentarily stump the group: “What if I told you that I was Muslim? Would that make me a bad person? Would you not want to talk to me?”
“Well, we would still like you,” chimed several of the girls, “…we like talking to you … It wouldn’t matter then, because we know you and you are a kind and fun person."
“So,” Josephine reasoned, “just because someone has a certain belief or background that is different from you, does that mean she is automatically bad? No, it does not, because she might also be a nice and fun person. Therefore, shall we say that not all Muslims are bad people? And shall we perhaps not be too quick to judge someone based on a single piece of information about her, with a presumption that may or may not be accurate but might instead be hurtful?”
There were nods of agreement and giggles from the girls, alongside a few genuinely contemplative faces.
That was all the time Josephine had to unpack cultural myths, for it was only a short visit to a sports session. Many of the girls showed some willingness to challenge the status quo, and perhaps a few girls’ steadfast prejudices had been brought into question.
As you all have read in the international media there has been a recent surge in tragic violence in Myanmar’s westernmost Rakhine State. The violence, a complicated mix between communal distrust, military force and, of course, the realities of the history of the area, has prompted critical discussions in our weekly adolescent girls’ Circles.
Intended to be a safe space, Colorful Girls Circles and sports sessions provoke girls to freely discuss issues, feelings, opinions and concerns. Discussions about people who are ‘different' is common and integral to our ethos. While a significant number of girls and staff in our programs come from minority groups, the compositions of each Circle depend on the demographics of each community.
It may have been the first time some girls had ever been prompted to think critically about their assumptions. A seed had been planted in their minds, and even if they had not entirely changed their opinion on this matter, at least they had been presented with a different perspective and an opportunity to try understanding an issue that has fueled ongoing conflict for centuries. In a country with one of the longest-standing civil wars, tolerance is nothing short of necessary if peace and equal rights are to be realized.
While there is still much to be done, we are chipping away at equipping girls with necessary skills and understanding about conflict resolution, human dignity, and the benefits of being ‘colorful.’
We realize this is a long one, so thank you for reading this report!
Unconventional Volleyball Games