Today we had the opportunity to sit down with a group of key members from BWU to discuss how BWU functions as an organization, and what they do throughout the year. We thought it would be beneficial to then pass on what we learned to all of you.
In 1988 Burma experienced a widespread attempt at a revolution. Many of the citizens desired a free and fair democracy as opposed to the military regime that was currently in place. Unfortunately, this uprising was met with a great deal of resistance from the military regime, and many Burmese people were killed. Since this uprising was mainly led by students, a great deal of them ended up fleeing to the borders of Thailand, China, India, and Bangladesh. A number of these students then formed the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF). The ABSDF is an exiled resistance group that operates an army to work alongside other ethnic military armies in opposition of Burma’s military regime. In 1994, a group of young female students broke off from the ABSDF to form an organization that was more specifically focused on the rights of women. Their main goals were to increase women’s participation in Burmese politics, and to provide much-needed support to women in refugee camps along the borders of Burma. On January 7th, 1995 the Burmese Women’s Union (BWU) was founded to advocate for these aims.
We are women from various backgrounds working towards empowering women of Burma as active workforces to build a society based on peace and sustainable development.
The Burmese Women’s Union (BWU)’s vision is to promote greater participation of women and to enhance their capacity to work for gender equality and social development, and to strengthen the role of women in political decision-making bodies.
- To efficiently increase the contribution of women in the struggle for democracy, human rights and the establishment of a genuine democratic federal union.
- To advocate for the acceptance and exercise of women’s rights in Burmese society on a par with internationally recognized standards.
- To use women’s capabilities to establish stable peace and long-term development for Burmese society in the future.
Regions of BWU:
- Region One: Mae La Oo Refugee Camp: Programs: Nursery School and Income Generation Project
- Region Two: Mae Hong Song Refugee Camp: Programs: Income Generation Project
- Region Three: China: Programs: Women Empowerment and Resource Center and Library
- Region Four: India: Programs: Women Empowerment and Resource Center and Library
- Region Five: Mae La Refugee Camp: Programs: Recently became an inactive region because its members have been resettled into foreign countries
Political Empowerment Program (PEP):Women in the PEP study Burmese history as well as other international women’s rights movements. Other common topics discussed are human rights, women’s rights, and gender equality. This program usually lasts three to six months and approximately twenty women are involved in each session. The PEP is hosted once a year and takes place in either Chiang Mai or Mae Sot.
Women Empowerment Resource Center (China and India):The Women Empowerment Resource Center is a welcoming space for women from the migrant community to visit throughout the year for learning purposes. The center educates women on a number of issues including family planning, reproductive health, domestic violence, sexual harassment, sex and gender, women’s rights, human rights, labor rights, and cultural rights. The center also provides an opportunity for women to be educated on Burma’s history, various women’s movements, community organizing, and feminism. The goals of these sessions are to build up the migrant women’s self-confidence, establish relationships, and develop trust among these women who are seeking information from BWU. These education sessions typically run in one of two ways:
- Approximately 3 hours
- Approximately 10-20 women attend each one
- Cover one topic (family planning, reproductive health, domestic violence, sexual harassment, sex and gender, women’s rights, human rights, HIV/AIDS, STIs, women and religion, adolescent health, economic, social and cultural rights, and Thai labor rights)
- June 2013: discussions are held at least twice a month
- Approximately 1-3 days
- Approximately 20 women attend each one
- Cover multiple topics
- Day 1: sex and gender, gender roles, gender discrimination
- Day 2: sexual harassment, domestic violence
- Day 3: women’s rights
- Each training tailored to fit time constraints
- June 2013: no trainings have occurred this year so far because of lack of funding
Libraries (Thailand, China and India):
The goal of BWU’s libraries is to help the migrant women population gain knowledge and understanding about issues affecting their lives such as women’s rights, labor rights and human rights. BWU does this by providing books and a safe space to read them. BWU provides membership cards to the migrant community so that they can check out books. In order to become a member, a current member must vouch for you. In Mae Sot, BWU also exchanges books with 15 different migrant communities once a month. Each individual holding a library membership card can check out 3 books a week.
Income Generation Project:
The Income Generation Project provides funding for various projects that BWU members are collaborating on and attempting to start. The Income Generation Project is held in Regions Two and Five. Region Two currently has ten people participating in the program, whereas Region Five has twenty people participating. Both regions have been allotted a total of 25,000 baht to distribute.
GlobeMed at Whitman’s Funded Programs:
Health Trainings: This year, GlobeMed at Whitman funded ten reproductive health discussions in the Mae Sot area. The training covers topics such as reproductive health, contraceptives, STIs, family planning, and abortions. These trainings also provide migrant women access to various forms of contraceptives. In the Mae Sot area, BWU works with the local health center (Mae Tao Clinic) to arrange for women to obtain contraceptives at no cost. GlobeMed at Whitman also funded contraception for 40 women in the Mae La Oo Refugee Camp as well as pregnancy tests for 40 women. Since Mae La Oo is a whole day’s journey by car away from Mae Sot, it is too difficult for BWU to take the contraception from the Mae Tao Clinic up to Mae La Oo, which is why GlobeMed at Whitman is funding contraception for these refugee women.
Nursery School: BWU also funds a nursery school in the Mae La Oo Refugee Camp with approximately thirty children, mostly from BWU members. This year, GlobeMed at Whitman is funding three teachers’ salaries for 15 months, nutritional lunches for the children for 15 months, as well as various administrative costs (such as a leaky roof) for 15 months. The nursery school makes it easier for migrant workers to work during the day as well as provide early childhood education to their children.
BWU is a vast organization of roughly 500 members, and because of this it has a hierarchy of positions with various roles:
Congress– Congress is composed of roughly forty members representing all five of the regions. Representatives are elected every two years by the BWU members in their region. There is close to one congressperson per every ten BWU members in that region. Congress then has various discussions on the political situation in Burma, and the projects they want to organize in the upcoming years.
Executive Committee– Congress then elects nine representatives to The Executive Committee. The roles of The Chair, The General Secretary, and The Joint General Secretary are among these nine representatives. The Executive Committee is mainly responsible for reporting on the progress of the chosen projects, obtaining funding for the projects, and managing the finances of the projects. Already this summer, we have met two of the three most powerful women in BWU! Naw Lay Dee is the Chair and she often meets us as we tour organizations in Mae Sot. Rachel has even ridden on her motorbike! Noe Noe Htet San was the General Secretary until two months ago when she retired, and she is also in Mae Sot, teaching us about Burmese history. Hopefully, in the coming weeks, we’ll also have the opportunity to meet the Joint General Secretary as she is Thwel Zin Toe (Toe Toe), GlobeMed’s main contact in Chiang Mai!
Central Committee Members– The Central Committee Members help facilitate communication between the Executive Committee and the regions where the projects they are overseeing are taking place. The Central Committee Members are composed of fourteen people. Five of these members are chosen to represent one of the five regions by the BWU members in that region. Congress then elects the other nine members.
If you have questions, please comment and then we’ll ask the staff members we are working with! We are very lucky to be working with two of the most powerful women in BWU (Lay Dee and Noe Noe) and they are just a wealth of knowledge!
Morgan, Rachael and Rachel