SWAN’s mission is gender equality so we work at all levels to affect this. One of our major grass-roots approaches is hosting Women’s Exchanges where we invite any woman to attend: old or young; academic or illiterate; student, worker or house manager and mother. In mid-July 2016, SWAN’s local Focal Points *, community health workers and some of our staff from Taunggyi organised a series Women’s Exchanges over 3 days in 3 villages around Kunhing in Central Shan State, Burma. These successful community forums for women’s issues attracted in total 147 women from the areas around these 3 villages.
These 147 women were mainly shop keepers or workers, farmers and primary carers of children so due to their already heavy workload the Women’s Exchanges occurred in the evenings; and of course SWAN upholds child safe spaces so kids were in attendance also. The main topics discussed were women’s health, reducing domestic violence, understanding sexual violence between married couples, and how to manage incomes. For the most part, women don’t have a place to have fun together because everyday is just working and looking after their families at home. After team- and trust-building exercises, and creating a safe space for these women to feel free to have open discussion and to laugh louder together than they ever have before, SWAN facilitators get down to business.
For many rural women in Shan State, good health care is hard to access with very few government funded clinics, doctors and health workers. In conflict-affected areas such as throughout Shan State women are giving birth without medical assistance. SWAN has local Health Workers, all Auxiliary Midwives and trained in curative care. Many discussions involved when and how to seek medical support.
Women in Burma face normalised Family and Domestic Violence on a daily basis. Currently, Burma has no legislation against gender-based violence and as recently as 3 years ago violence against women wasn’t even acknowledged by the government. At these Women’s Exchanges, and all others like them that SWAN hosts, we discuss Domestic Violence (DV) and Violence Against Women (VAW) in great detail. Why? Because for many women the idea that safety from this violence is a Human Right is totally foreign to them. We discuss how to seek assistance and justice, and as a collective of strong women how to hold the male perpetrators to more accountability. In particular, women are unaware that forced non-consensual sex with their husband is actually sexual assault. So as a group we delve into the fact that women’s rights are human rights, and that sex without consent is rape and we should support other women who are being raped because the police will not.
After such forums we encourage feedback and SWAN staff reported that once again the Women’s Exchange participants were overall happy to have been provided with a place to discuss women’s affairs and to relax together in solidarity. The general knowledge gained and the chance to express themselves, their feelings and their experiences, is invaluable; as are the new friends and supports that these women’s spaces create. Participants say they hope for another Women’s Exchange soon, and SWAN knows from experience that they will bring more friends and family to the next one. This is one way SWAN spreads women’s empowerment and works towards ending violence against women at the village-level.
*Focal Points are women committed to the empowerment of their village peers. They are volunteer representatives for SWAN; often graduates and alumnae of trainings held by SWAN. Their task is to support, uphold and promote women’s rights in their village, often in the face of great opposition from male officials, and to facilitate social capital development between the women to together become empowered.