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Help put girls at the forefront of change in Burma

by Girl Determined
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Help put girls at the forefront of change in Burma
Help put girls at the forefront of change in Burma
Help put girls at the forefront of change in Burma
Help put girls at the forefront of change in Burma
Help put girls at the forefront of change in Burma
Help put girls at the forefront of change in Burma
Help put girls at the forefront of change in Burma
Help put girls at the forefront of change in Burma
Help put girls at the forefront of change in Burma
Help put girls at the forefront of change in Burma
Help put girls at the forefront of change in Burma
Help put girls at the forefront of change in Burma
Help put girls at the forefront of change in Burma
Girls will be amongst the worst affected
Girls will be amongst the worst affected

Myanmar has been, like other parts of the world, slow to react to the health and economic emergencies that are underway.  After many weeks with almost no testing, the government reported the first confirmed COVID-19 patient on March 23rd.  Testing has steadily confirmed new patients who have tested positive for COVID-19.  With this limited testing and a history of government obscurity, many are concerned that the virus has spread much deeper into communities across the country.  The federal government has restricted large gatherings, and some local jurisdictions have made efforts to slow public activities and limit services to those most essential.  Many thousands of migrant workers have returned from abroad and city-dwellers headed back to their villages for the annual Thingyan, water festival, holidays to be with their families.  So, lots of people moving around. 

As with other health and economic emergencies, adolescent girls will be amongst the worst affected.  Issues that girls already face will be exacerbated and new inequalities will develop.  We remain committed to girls, working to mitigate harm and buoy girls’ resilience in the fluid situation. 

Based on our experience, what we expect to see is some, if not all, of the following:

  • increased violence in homes with support services dramatically curtailed if not totally absent; 
  • increased exploitation and violation with the enhanced demand for girls to seek income/revenue to support families, including a rise in trafficking;  
  • lack of access to critical reproductive health services — including, but not limited to, contraception; 
  • seriously increased burden of unpaid care work leading to exposure to various infections when there is no health service; 
  • and increased incidents of harassment and abuse as girls may be moved out from school dormitories, for example, to various relatives’ homes to relieve family financial burdens.

 

What is Girl Determined doing?

With offices partially closed and summer activities canceled we continue to actively serve girls in the following ways:

Taking calls on our girls’ crisis phone lines

To be prepared to respond to any cases of violence or sexual assault in their homes or surroundings, we are reviewing best practices from other outbreaks so we know how to maintain services that support girls and young women.  

Community-based staff checking in on girls

We have trained community-based staff and young women leaders in over 85 areas.  They are checking in on girls they believe may be most at-risk of violence or significant upheaval as this situation progresses. 

Conducting community monitoring

Given our reach, we prepared to share information two-ways, as community-based staff and girls contact us if they notice a health outbreak or other emergency, and even encouraging acts of solidarity.  We can support local response and contact relevant authorities as needed.

 

What is Girl Determined planning?

Using our strengths and what we have built, we are working on the following further actions:

Developing girl-specific information streams

Though there is a lot of good information being transmitted through the many “airwaves,” we know that girls need tailored information delivered through pathways they can access.  We are drafting and designing simple, girl-relevant health information on personal safety planning, mental and emotional health guidance and more, and finding creative pathways to ensure that it gets to girls. 

Supporting girls facing abuse and other forms of crisis

Firstly, we are developing staff capacity to manage more intensive and varied crisis calls, including requests for general COVID-19 information.  This process includes internal sharing of relevant information, drafting potential sets of frequently asked questions, building out referral guidelines, and skills building around supporting girls who are experiencing mental or emotional distress.  And secondly, we are researching ways to safely get to girls who need immediate assistance on the ground.  This means looking into best practices for supporting those experiencing violence in the course of other global outbreaks and then using our experience and knowledge to apply those lessons learned here, on the ground. 

Building digital networks of girls

Rural and peri-urban adolescent girls are amongst the last in the country to actively participate in digital spaces and to have access and control over internet-capable phones.  We will consider how to use the limited access that is available to girls to try to build up connectivity for the transmission of useful information, support, and possibly create new ways for girls to take the lead in their communities.  This may come in the form of strategic phone distribution, the provision of usage fees to other adults in the household or neighborhood phone groups.  We just don’t know yet and will be trying different things out in the coming weeks.  

Communicating with other localized organizations

To ensure that our colleague organizations are employing girl-friendly methods and that girls have access to as broad a set of services as possible, we will actively stay in communication with domestic and international service provision organizations.  

 

Please follow our updates on social media where we will continue to let you know how things are going on the ground here in Myanmar.  The depth of our global interdependence is truly cast into relief these days and your continued support for adolescent girls near and far is an investment in the well-being of us all. 

 

 

What girls across the country are saying
What girls across the country are saying
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Talking to and hearing from girls is so important!
Talking to and hearing from girls is so important!

In this report, we’d like to give you a brief update on the outcomes of the regional girls’ forums in November. Across the country we saw thousands of girls assemble in 13 regional centers to discuss and share ideas with girls from other communities. These annual forums provide a unique opportunity for girls from different villages, schools, and backgrounds to meet and work together to develop group action plans to address an issue that holds them back. 

During these conferences, girls were given the opportunity to self-organize into discussion groups based on their individual interests. They could choose from topics like education, health and sanitation, girls’ expression, and safety and security, and then work with other girls to identify real, day-to-day challenges they face related to these topics. Together they brainstormed ways they could tackle these challenges, and devised action plans in order to inspire the changes they would like to see. In the spirit of celebrating what girls can do, girls were also able to share a host of talents and ideas through performances of songs, skits, debates, dances, and panel discussions with alumnae from Girl Determined programming.

These forums build on a Girl Determined curricular focus of girls identifying future goals for themselves and their community. One girl from the Yangon Regional Forum remarked, “we each have our own ambitions and goals, and while it might be difficult to get there, if we work bit-by-bit to reach it, we will succeed.” Collective organizing among girls across communities can be difficult, and girls are almost never encouraged to take on leadership roles or to think creatively. We are eager to see how girls’ ideas transform into actions, with our guidance and support.

The solutions and action plans resulting from the forums may range in approach and scope, but all have the common root of being developed by girls who are challenging gendered expectations and pushing for what they need to create safe, supportive environments for their own growth and development. In Kachin State, girls are organizing across communities to produce artwork about reducing violence against girls. And in a rural, hilly area of Shan State girls are working together to clean clogged waterways and plant trees to limit negative effects of flooding on rural women farmers. We look forward to witnessing girls embark on grassroots campaigns through the implementation of these action plans in the coming months, and then sharing the results with you!

As always, thank you for your continued support. It is our pleasure to have you with us to ensure girls all across Myanmar are determining their own futures. Let's keep this momentum going into the new year!

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Girls gather by the amazing poinsettia tree
Girls gather by the amazing poinsettia tree

One of our guiding principles is to be certain that our programming hews closely to the real needs of girls in the communities where we work.  As such, we check-in with girls regularly to hear their thoughts.  Adolescent girls in a large Buddhist Monastic and Community School, the community spotlight of this report, touch on real struggles related to ongoing conflicts and gender-based violence they face daily.  The girls offer surprisingly positive outlooks on their futures, unafraid to step up to challenges and bring forth positive changes in their communities.

"In my village, there are no schools which provide free education.  To send someone to school, we have to pay for school expenses, rice, and oil.  People donate to this monastic school because the head monk is doing a lot of good charity works.  Someday, I would also like to open a school where students can attend free of charge.

One time, I noticed a group of students discriminating against another girl because she was Palaung (a different minority ethnic group).  When I saw this, I thought about what we had learned in Colorful Girls Circles, and reminded them to think about how that person might feel.  After that, I have not seem them discriminate like that anymore. I really want to change these things and I think I can influence my friends and other sisters.  I believe we can build a peaceful community if people stop discriminating and looking down on each other.”  — Nang Mu* aged 14

 

We have been running Girl Determined’s Colorful Girls program at this monastic school nestled in the red hills of Southern Shan State since 2017.  After several visits from key members of our staff, the abbot of the monastic school gave us permission and needed collaboration to launch our Circles and Sports program for girls aged 12 to 17 attending the school and from the nearby community.  To date, over 700 adolescent girls at this school have directly benefited from our transformational programs. 

One of our colleagues recalls an early visit to the school:

“As we were speaking with the abbot, collecting a history of the school and trying to figure out if the school would be a good fit for us —meaning that we would be able to truly have a real impact there— the abbot seemed to change his facial expression.  He stopped being so formal and said something along the lines of, ‘Look, my sisters, we have so many girls and young women at this school and we support their education as much as we can.  But, I am a monk.  Our school was started by monks, and we can only pretend to know the real needs of girls.  So, please work with us and together we can do it.’  The sincerity of the abbot’s appeal moved everyone, and after a more detailed conversation about logistics, limits, possibilities and of course, financing, we moved ahead with the program.”  

The school is a large institution founded in the mid-2000s, initially just to provide both secular and religious education to novice monks. But as armed conflict in the area escalated, the economy shifted and the need for formal education increased, more and more rural families began to send their daughters away from the village and to this school for education in the Myanmar government curriculum.  The school is free and many of the students live on the premises. 

At this school, almost all the girls in our program identify as members of the ethnic minority group Pa’O, most of whom are farmers and live in the villages around that area.  Though the school curriculum uses Burmese language, much of the teaching is conducted in the local Pa’O language.  And, in our programs, facilitators and coaches primarily conduct weekly sessions in the Pa’O language as well.  As this is most girls’ mother tongue, the opportunity to speak freely and clearly express themselves really enhances the benefits for the girls, and in communities with a more mixed demographic make-up, not all participants will have the chance to participate in their most comfortable language. 

The support of the school’s leadership has been instrumental—especially because the total number of girls is so high.  The abbot and the head teacher have come out in full support.  In addition to their appeal to collaborate, they immediately began working with us to identify appropriate women in the community to become facilitators and coaches, leading weekly sessions for adolescent girls.  And, amazingly —and really rare for us— the school leadership figured out how to work our sessions into the daily school schedule, and to fit in sports sessions before school and on the weekends, so girls can play hard and never have to miss a session. 

 

This project site in the eastern part of the country, is located within the boundaries of the Pa’O Self-administered Zone.  The ethnic self-administered zones, of which there are only five in Myanmar, were initiated from Myanmar’s 2008 constitution.  Pa’O armed groups have been actively fighting against the Burmese military since Burma’s independence from Britain in 1942.  And while the primary Pa’O ethnic leaders agreed to a ceasefire with the Myanmar military, skirmishes persist and splinter groups have engaged in militia style combat.  Not only has the National Ceasefire not fully realized, but localized tensions based on the history of dissent and violence, continue to provoke flare-ups which lead to real threats to villagers lives and livelihoods. 

Because of these conditions, in addition to the generalized poverty of many households in the area, many, many girls are now being sent away for education and safety.  For us, the sheer number of girls eager to participate is a challenge in our programming at the school.  Rather than accepting the initial request of enrolling all 600 girls in the first round, we negotiated and arrived at a staggered start-up schedule in order to alleviate the burden of getting weekly sessions for so many girls at a single project site running at once.

 

As a further success, bound to the solid relationship with the abbot at this monastic school, we have been invited to run programs for adolescent girls at another nearby monastic school.  This August we prepared several community-based women to begin facilitating our programs for around 70 girls in this new site.  We anticipate a growing need for support for girls in Shan State over the coming years as armed conflict in the northern parts of the state has escalated in recent weeks, and instability in this area, and other parts of the country, has led to the trafficking of girls and young women.  With girls’ lives and futures remaining uncertain, their families will continue sending them to the Buddhist monastic schools for security and stability.

 

Thank you for reading, and for your continued support!

Girls create a decorative Pa'O flag
Girls create a decorative Pa'O flag

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Thandar after follow-up meeting in 2018
Thandar after follow-up meeting in 2018

In this project report, we would like to share with you about Thandar, a young woman from Myanmar’s central dry zone.  Thandar joined our program around five years ago, and she has remained connected to our Colorful Girls network since then.  Please read on to learn how her life was impacted by our work.

 

————————— 

My name is Thandar and I am 23 years old.  My mother is a farmer and cooks at home.  My father passed away. My sister tends to our cows and I weave.  During the farming season, I leave my weaving loom often to assist my mother with the farm and animals. 

I am not sure exactly when I joined Girl Determined, but I believe it was around 2013.  Back then, I never missed a day of the program.  I was active in the discussions, and when I did not speak, I listened to others.  Also, I got the chance to attend summer camp, where I learned about conflict—how and why it happens around our country, and also, within families.

I recently got married.  I am happy now, although I am busier because I help my husband’s parents on their farm as well as my own family’s farm.  I do it willingly and I like working.  In Girl Determined’s program I learned a lot about communication including the difference between passive, assertive and aggressive.  I also built up my sense of self-worth.  I think that I use these qualities often in my marriage.  I know how to negotiate and discuss issues and make decisions together.  I can also stop arguments and de-escalate conflicts between us.  I learned this style of communication from the Girl Determined program.  I know I can’t change everything, but I can change some things little by little. 

Girls in our village now have courage to go out and to speak aloud.  Before Girl Determined programs, many girls didn’t not know what to do with their lives.  Teenagers from our village now have opportunities to attend the program, which is very beneficial for them.  For sure we need to create more opportunities for girls and young women, but I can see that since Girl Determined started here, we are already able to think differently and take advantage of new opportunities and programs.  The Head Monk from the village appreciates the program and he is encouraging— this has also changed the situation for girls. 

In the past, parents did not let girls go out alone, but now, parents are more trusting of their daughters and more flexible.  The learnings we gained from Girl Determined have made it easier for us to live in our community— we even dare to chit-chat amongst other girls about things that are important to us, both the good and the bad.  This includes issues around our own bodies and family planning.  At first, our parents did not want us to join the program as the sessions were in the evenings when it was dark outside.  However, parents do not say such things about girls joining the programs now.  There is still some control over children by their parents, but it is much better than before.

I think most children do not want to live under their parents’ shadow.  That is one of the reasons why young adults are leaving the weaving business behind for something else.  I think they are seeking freedom from their parents’ control.  At least for me, through what I learned from Girl Determined’s programs, I was able to push for and create the freedom that I needed within my family and within my village.  This way, I didn’t have to run away to be free from their control, which could have been dangerous and limited my development.  Instead, my family supports me and I can focus on building up my skills and creativity and put that into my weaving business. 

—————————

 

We are still in the process of compiling and analysing all the girl data collected from the previous year, however we are continuing to see substantial positive changes.  After a year of the Girl Determined program, one sampling of girls surveyed showed an average of 25% improvement in girls’ leadership skills and attitude toward girls in leadership roles.  Girls have a different understanding of themselves than when they started our programs— moreover, they are also changing other people’s perception of girls.

Your support enables girls and youg women, like Thandar, to gain the skills and confidence needed to take control of their own lives and to lead other girls to do the same.  We are so pleased to continue this important work for adolescent girls and young women across Myanmar, as we start up this new program cycle with over 3,000 girls.

Thank you for reading!

Thandar with peers in her village, circa 2013
Thandar with peers in her village, circa 2013
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Girls play volleyball in a peri-urban area
Girls play volleyball in a peri-urban area

Dear friends,

Now that Thingyan, also known as the Myanmar New Year or the water festival, has passed—along with all the cross-country movement and festivities that come along with the biggest holiday of the year—we are able to re-focus on the remaining time left during summer break.

Our annual summer camps were once again a success with over 250 participating girls from all across the country.  They gathered together in a former ‘hill station’ in the cooler Shan highlands for one week to dig into peace-building discussions and girl leadership topics.

Nu Nu from the coastal Tanintharyi region shared her experience from camp:

“Back in my community, we tend to have some prejudices against different religions and ethnic people, but here [at camp] I saw so many different girls and felt guilty for my narrow-mindedness before.

On the first day, I judged too quickly a girl who had a different skin color, but I no longer have that feeling.  Actually, I got to know a lot of things I didn’t know from them and we have a good time throughout camp.” 

 

Our regular programs typically go on hiatus during the hot summer months, because many girls leave project sites (e.g. nunneries and boarding houses) to visit hometowns, or because girls are too busy with domestic chores or other seasonal work to attend weekly sessions.  However, this year we wanted to employ the new self-protection module as a short-term program to engage girls who remain in their sites and are still available throughout summer.  After some deliberation, we decided to re-brand the module and are now referring to it as, “Girls Stand Up!”

In March we trained over 20 community-based young women leaders on the objectives and activities covered in the 16-session play-based module.  We discussed important topics, including:

  • What does violence against girls and women actually look like?
  • How does violence affect girls— and their families, communities, schools, etc.?
  • What are some practical skills and habits girls can learn to avoid or reduce violence in their communities?
  • How do we make this seemingly heavy topic of violence useful, digestible, and even interesting to girls?  

Two unique aspects of this module relate to physical movement of girls— something that is regularly limited because of restrictive gender norms or for “girls safety.”  One aspect is the play-based approach which helps girls learn about their physical abilities, while keeping the learning fun and active.  The second is the community-engagement piece which encourages girls to move around their neighbourhoods, learning about their surroundings and seeking out support from specific community members (i.e. the “Green Dot” initiative).  By holding everyone accountable for safe spaces, and agreeing not to tolerate any forms of violence or aggression, then can the issue be addressed fully.

From now until the end of summer, almost 400 girls will have completed the module.  These girls, mostly between the ages of 10-14, will be equipped with improved ability to recognize signs of violence, avoid potentially risky situations, and determine whether and how to intervene when encountering violence.  

Thanks for tuning in, and we are excited to share updates with you on how more girls are gaining confidence and skills to stand up to violence together!

 

Young women practice the "Green Dot" map activity
Young women practice the "Green Dot" map activity
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Organization Information

Girl Determined

Location: Waynesboro, VA - USA
Website:
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @GirlDetermined
Project Leader:
Brooke Z
Charlottesville, Virginia United States

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