IRC ‘agents for women’ gain respect in Mae Hong Son

“Agents for women”, the male refugees whispered, as they observed male staff from the International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) Gender-based Violence Programme go about their activities in the community. Other men, on being encouraged to share housework responsibilities, agreed, “They are not real men”. When programming to addresses violence against women is introduced into a community it often takes time for community members, especially men, to understand and accept it. Starting IRC’s program in the refugee camps for ethnic Karenni from Burma was no exception. But the reality was that the camp was rife with problems of domestic violence. Frustration from being holed up in the camp for years, unemployment and alcohol abuse, among others --- often implode nightly in the small bamboo houses. But, “you don’t hear anything”, Ko Noung says quietly. A volunteer for the GBV programme and a refugee himself, he continues, “You only know something [bad] has happened when you see the woman’s bruises the next morning.” There are no reliable figures for the prevalence or severity of the problem, but surveys in similar camps estimate that over half of the women have suffered from physical abuse at sometime in their life. The misguided definition of a ‘real’ man was particularly hard to address for IRC staff. “Whatever the man wants, he must have. He feels that he has the right to force,” says Paw Wee Dee, who discovered that her friend had trouble recovering from an operation because her husband was forcing her to have sexual intercourse. Since Min Lwin joined the team three years ago, getting section leaders (community members who are respected and nominated by the refugees as leaders) used to the idea of men and women being equals, has been among his top priorities. Starting with the community leaders has been a good strategy for getting people at the grassroots level of the community to also hear his message about gender equality. Min Lwin recently detected a heartfelt change among the leaders, saying, “Now, they feel a sense of ownership for the project. Our staff has even gained respect.” The obstacles along the way have been a small price to pay. The GBV program facilitated the formation of a camp-based group, called the Men’s Action Network. The network recruits volunteers to invite their families and friends to join activities (see box), and trains them to hold discussions with their acquaintances and others in the community about settling family affairs in a non-violent way, among other topics. “It is so difficult if you are responsible for everything in the household,” says Wah Doh, a program volunteer, re-enacting how he gives advice to other men. “If your wife is also responsible, you can worry less. It is good for you.” Looking at his sincere delivery, I was convinced that no one could have rejected this remarkably tactful way of saying, “You must not want to control everyone.” The challenge with this work is going the next step with men—so that they understand not only why stopping certain behavior benefits them, but also how it stops harming women. Ko Noung’s advocacy to stop violence against women goes beyond his professional life. He discussed how he had invited a friend, who had been abusing his wife, for meals at his house. In between mouthfuls of food, he casually slipped in tips like, “If you don’t agree with her, you can negotiate”, and “If you feel out of control, you can pick up your child and go out for a walk”. The GBV team also works closely with other organisations and groups that work to prevent violence against women or help victims. Paw Wee Dee is herself actively involved in the Raising Awareness Team, a group supported by the IRC to bring attention to women’s issues. The GBV team also collaborates with the Karenni National Women’s Organisation, which runs a shelter for survivors and provides counseling to them. Domestic violence has not vanished, and it is impossible to imagine that such incidents will never occur. In changing attitudes, every change is an important step forward. Shar Myar, who is pregnant with her second child, says that some women have changed. “They can handle relationships better and are more confident.” She also observes that more men now help out with household chores, and adds thoughtfully, “Back in the Karenni State, they would never have done such work.” PROJECT KEY ACTIVITIES Poster campaign The IRC GBV team has put up a series of strikingly illustrated posters on themes like how to parent boys and the proper behavior expected of men, around the camp. The team also gathers the community to discuss the posters. Public theatre performances The team stages short plays on family violence four to five times a year. Video discussions Community members are gathered to watch videos and discuss themes of violence and peaceful resolution. Men’s Action Network The volunteers attend training sessions, share their knowledge with the community, and encourage others to attend programme activities. This story was written with research by Wong Zijia.

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