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Meet some lesser-known women who have worked in her shadow, taking bold steps toward a more just country.
“At that time,” Hnin Thandar Win says, tears swelling in her eyes, “I thought I would die. I locked my room and didn’t want to come out.”
The past government arrested AIDS activists, blocked humanitarian activities and actively discriminated against those infected. Naw She’ Wah worked around the government. She focused on creating a community of those with AIDS and encouraging each member to disclose her status and regain control over her life.
Naw She’ Wah, who has built this network to 3,600 members, says her husband passed away from AIDS in 1999, leaving her with two toddlers and parents-in-law who blamed her for their son’s death. Her parents-in-law took away her husband’s property and tried to take the children, she says. She gave up the land but refused to hand over her toddlers.
“These are my children,” she says, her voice becoming firm as she recounts the story. “Don’t try to separate [me from] my children.”
Naw She’ Wah kept her children and joined a non-governmental organization working on AIDS in Shan State, where she lived.
“When I got in touch with the community, [I realized] there are a lot of people the same as me,” she says.
But facing discrimination there, she moved to Yangon to start anew. By 2008 she helped form the Myanmar Positive Women Network.
After she talks about herself, she pushes the focus back to the other women sitting around the bamboo matt. “Talk to them,” she says. “They all have interesting stories.” In Naw She’ Wah’s community, all the women have voices that deserve to be heard.
HTAR HTAR: Testing the new Myanmar
When Htar Htar was 10, as she rode a local bus with her mother and sister, a conductor stood behind her and, pretending to help her balance, slowly molested her.
“It was the most terrifying experience for me in my whole life. I was so young; I didn’t know what was happening,” Htar Htar said years later.
For the next 30 years Htar Htar did not tell anyone what happened to her. But over the years, she thought back to that day on the bus as her life’s most disturbing moment.
In 2011, the political situation in Myanmar quickly began to change. Suddenly, Htar Htar – a fashionable woman with thick brown hair flowing down her back and a string of bangles on her wrist – felt able and willing to revisit her experience on the bus. As the country opened, she decided to be open about her past. And as a political space to protest appeared, she wanted to take part.
Htar Htar and her friends in an informal women’s group wanted to test the new Myanmar and fight for a cause, but they didn’t know how.
“When we were very young we heard about ‘campaign,’ but we didn’t know what it is,” she continued. In the women’s minds, the word conjured up an image of someone standing in a big hall, giving a speech. They decided to give it a try.
The group decided to organize a campaign against sexual harassment on buses. In addition to Htar Htar, many women and girls had personal stories of fondling, rubbing or indecent “poking” on public buses in Yangon, she said.
A lack of rule of law, fear of speaking up, culture of shame and lack of virtually any sex or sexuality education has created a situation in which sexual harassment on buses is common, and women and girls do not assert themselves.
“It is shameful to be assaulted,” Htar Htar said. “If you respond, more people will know – double shame.”
But as Myanmar opens up, gender activists like Htar Htar are looking deeply at the abuses in their society and mobilizing people to take action.
Htar Htar’s group formed an action committee and planned their campaign: they would use volunteers to hand out tens of thousands of whistles and information sheets to women on buses, explaining that if they faced sexual harassment they should blow the whistle.
The launch day arrived, and 366 volunteers gathered early (some backed out, presumably because they feared arrest). Everyone was on edge.
“On the first day we were so...” – Htar Htar put her clasped hands over her heart – “...nervous.”
Htar Htar felt responsible for her volunteers and feared something could happen to them.
“I couldn’t forget that morning. We were like going for battle!” she said, her eyes opening wide as she remembered the feeling of anticipation. “Everybody was silent.”
The volunteers dispersed and when there were no signs of problems, the group knew they had pulled it off. When the group recollected two hours later, the women felt overwhelmed with joy, Htar Htar said. “Almost crying.”
The volunteers now gather regularly to pass out whistles and continue their campaign.
Htar Htar has realized that activism is not easy; it has led to a strain on her marriage and finances. But she has tasted the sense of joy and triumph that comes with mobilizing a community to work for change, and she isn’t going back.