The Thandaunggyi Women’s Group helps survivors of gender-based violence in southeast Myanmar. In the shadow of the coup and widespread conflict that has swept the country, we talk to the women who sustain these essential services.
Hser Hser supervises a safe house operated by the Thandaunggyi Women’s Group (TWG) in southeast Myanmar. “Most of our clients are women and girls affected by physical, emotional and sexual violence,” she explains. “We can accommodate up to 10 clients at one time and accept them based on the urgency of their needs.”
“The safe house is a lifeline for women who have lost hope,” says Hser Hser. “We prioritize pregnant women and women displaced by conflict. They can stay here for at least three months, or longer if they can’t return home and we can’t find them a safe place to stay. The important thing is that they feel comfortable and safe.”
With support from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)’’s Women and Girls First Program, Community Partners International (CPI) is helping TWG operate two safe houses providing gender-based violence services to survivors, two clinics providing sexual and reproductive health services, and outreach services reaching 100,000 people in 90 villages in Kayin State and Bago Region, southeast Myanmar.
At the safe houses, clients receive counseling to help them cope with the trauma they have experienced. “As well as the violence, some of our clients have also been displaced by conflict and suffered financial problems,” explains Hser Hser. “They need support to rebuild their mental health.” They also receive medical care for physical injuries and other needs.
The safe houses provide skills training including tailoring and coffee production as both occupational therapy and to help them earn income during their stay and after leaving. But these opportunities are limited: “We can only provide basic sewing training because we have limited staff capacity,” explains Hser Hser.
Over the years, Hser Hser has encountered many clients who have suffered deeply distressing situations. “I remember one pregnant woman who came to us because her husband regularly beat and strangled her, even when she was pregnant,” she reveals. “Her neighbor noticed her injuries and offered to help. At first, the woman refused but she later asked for help. She was desperate to find a safe place to give birth.”
“With help from her neighbor she was referred to the safe house,” Hser Hser continues “When she first arrived she was very scared, and it took a long time for her to talk about the violence. She stayed with us for two months and we helped her to access prenatal care and give birth safely. Two weeks after she gave birth, she decided to return home as she had three other children and was worried about them. We couldn’t stop her but we are monitoring her situation through our case worker. So far, it’s been two months. She says she is okay and her husband hasn’t been abusive.”
To reach women in need, TWG operates a team of case workers who identify and help survivors of intimate partner violence in focus communities. Reaching out to survivors is a delicate and risky process.
“When I receive information about someone in need of our help, I don’t visit their home for safety reasons,” explains TWG case worker Ma Aung. “I find a way to contact them confidentially and arrange to meet in a safe place. Once I know what they need, I discuss with my team how to provide support and agree on a plan with the client. If they need to go to the safe house, we organize that. Or we can arrange emergency medical care and refer them to a health facility. If they don’t want to leave home, we can help them with food assistance and other support.”
Ma Aung is ready day or night to respond to emergency needs. “There was one case of a woman who was often beaten by her husband,” she recalls. “One night he came at her with a knife and she fled. She called me later that night and asked me to help her. I contacted the safe house supervisor and arranged for her to be admitted immediately.”
Ma Aung is aware that her work could place her in danger. “I haven’t experienced any threats to my safety yet,” she reveals. “But I know it could happen. I know that there are risks."
Help survivors of gender-based violence and others in urgent need:
Myanmar’s Demographic and Health Survey 2015-2016 revealed that 15% of women had experienced physical violence since age 15, and 3% had experienced sexual violence. The survey also revealed that only 22% of women who had experienced violence had sought help, and 37% had never told anyone about the violence. The escalating conflict and instability triggered by the February 2021 coup have made the situation of women in Myanmar more precarious.
“In this unstable situation, women and children face more insecurity,” explains TWG’s founder and director Mar Mar Cho. “If they experience violence, they don’t know where they can go for help or how to get legal assistance.”
Tightened security also creates challenges. “We have to inform the authorities about all overnight guests at the safe house,” explains Mar Mar Cho. “We need to provide a lot of information and this makes the clients feel unsafe. Also, curfews restrict our ability to reach clients. If they need our help urgently at night, we can’t get to them until the curfew is lifted at four am.”
“The number of women in need is increasing due to the conflict,” confirms safe house supervisor Hser Hser. “People are getting into financial trouble. They can’t sustain their livelihoods because of travel restrictions and displacement. Family incomes are falling and this creates stress and tension that can lead to violence. The camps for internally-displaced persons are becoming more crowded and cases of intimate partner violence are rising.”
Looking to the future, TWG is working to change cultural attitudes and practices contributing to the gender-based violence cycle. “Communities often keep quiet about intimate partner violence and people rarely speak out,” reveals Mar Mar Cho. “We have to educate men and young people and advocate for community leaders to support women’s rights. We have to change mindsets to make progress.”
Despite the challenges of their work, Mar Mar Cho, Hser Hser and Ma Aung are committed to continuing to help women in need.
“It makes me so happy to see the smiling faces of women when they have escaped violence and abuse. That feeling is irreplaceable," says Mar Mar Cho.
“This work is important to me and it’s much needed,” confirms Hser Hser. “Some women have nowhere to go and I want to help them as much as I can.”
“Our services really help women,” agrees Ma Aung. “I cannot imagine what would happen if we couldn’t help. There would be much more suffering.”
Help survivors of gender-based violence and others in urgent need:
Community Partners International (CPI) is leading the implementation of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)'s Women & Girls First (WGF) Program in six townships in Kayin State and one township in Bago Region, southeast Myanmar. The WGF Program is designed with the primary objective of gender equality and women’s empowerment, including access to quality sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and ending violence against women and girls. Under the WGF Program, CPI is working with community-based partners to expand access to a comprehensive, rights-based package of SRHR and gender-based violence (GBV) services for women and girls in conflict-affected, hard-to-reach villages. CPI is helping to integrate awareness and understanding of GBV into SRHR outreach services and to develop an integrated care and response mechanism for GBV survivors.