16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence: Partnerships to Leave No Woman or Girl Behind

An Advocate’s Story

By Bethany Corrigan, Senior Technical Advisor – GBV, PSI

PSI stands with people around the world to celebrate a global commitment eliminate violence against girls and women. In my first post, I talked about PSI’s role in a greater multi-sector, collaborative fight against the many-headed beast that is GBV. Beginning on the International Day for Elimination of Violence against women, and through the 16 Days of Activism, I will share an example of a GBV project implemented by PSI in Myanmar to illustrate how partnerships are the best way to attack more than one head of the beast, simultaneously. In a recent trip to Yangon, Myanmar I had the honor to meet four partners, each of whom represents a specific type of response to the beast, and together pooled their specialties to implement a program called, Breaking the Silence: Addressing GBV in Myanmar. Over the next two weeks, I will share their stories.

Ma Htar Htar is the director of Akhaya Women, Myanmar, a community organization empowering local communities to discuss gender equality, sexuality and violence prevention. Akhaya also provides comprehensive and high-quality services directly to survivors of violence such as counseling, legal support, a Crisis Center, Safe House and others throughout many regions in Myanmar. Under Breaking the Silence, PSI partnered with Akhaya to facilitate referral of survivors by Sun Clinic doctors.

As the Director of this organization and leader of a national movement, Ma Htar Htar is no novice when it comes to giving interviews. Still, as she responded to my questions, it felt more like I had attended a private rally for women’s rights. She is soft-spoken, but resolute, and her words cut directly to an issue’s core. It would be difficult to disregard her which, coupled with her knowledge and partner-savvy skills, makes her a powerful advocate.

Ma Htar Htar’s story is a compelling example of the bottom-up influence that grassroots, community-driven activism can have. In 2008, she attended a training by an Israeli sex therapist where she “learned that menstrual blood is not dirty” and that the social norms and practices that treat menstrual blood as dirty and shameful, “are really putting women in a second status.” She said, “Once I understood that menstrual blood is not dirty I started to question [everything]. I started to learn about sexuality, sexual health and what other myths and lies [we have been told] about our bodies generation after generation. I developed a curriculum to help women realize their self, to be friendly to their body, accept their body, come back to their body and when they change their perception towards their own body that makes them change their perception towards other women. This is really powerful, it’s like magic.” In Myanmar, things such as sexual and reproductive health, sexuality, and empowerment are not openly discussed, and certainly not among girls and women. “Not having sex education creates lots of problems, myths, negative gender norms and prejudices. But once you reveal it, once you talk about the effects it’ll change your life, it was a turning point of our lives, we started to question, we started to think differently, started to act differently.”

At first, Ma Htar Htar organized women’s groups to share the curriculum and empower others, but it wasn’t long until a campaign grew. “With 366 volunteers, that was the first women’s campaign in Myanmar led by a woman. The theme was to stop sexual harassment on the bus, which is everywhere, all women who use public transport have one way or another or two or three times been harassed. We were trained that men’s sexuality cannot be controlled so we have to accept it. And we were trained to be very shy and submissive and not to respond and almost all women are quiet.”

“We needed an organizational system to allow for what we wanted to do, empower women, so I decided to form Akhaya. We’ve provided services since 2014, so we have experience from the ground that we share with local NGOs, international NGOs and the government. We realized that it’s very important to think about survivors, put survivors in the center. Their best interest is very important in providing any kind of services. So we disciplined ourselves to listen to the survivors. They are the most important person, their family are most important, their supporters and their community. We are not working for an NGO, we are not working for Akhaya, we are working for those women. Akhaya is just the system. We found this really works, especially in resources limited settings. Community effort and passion really makes a difference, where access to justice and rule of law is limited.”

In the battle against the many heads of the monster that is GBV, organizations like PSI rely on partnerships with champions like Ma Htar Htar. Akhaya provides support services directly to survivors. More importantly, on the ground and as a member of the community, Akhaya and other local organizations in the community are positioned to be the best allies for the people we seek to serve. Like Akhaya, PSI designs activities and programs with people at the center. In the darkness where inequality and violence dwell we, as an international organization, must follow the insights and empathy of our community partners if we hope to shine a light on these issues.

Banner photo: © Population Services International / Banner Photo by: Chris White