Letter From Australia

I was listening recently to the re-run of an interview on ABC Radio National that took place a few years ago with the great South African trumpeter, composer, and activist, Hugh Masekela. In it, he was speaking about leaving South Africa a few months after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 and not returning for sixteen years. He spoke about feeling more intensely South African in the years he lived away from his home than when he did on return.  

Even though my situation is very different, that sense of feeling my Australian-ness acutely while living in the US is similar.

And now I’m back in Australia for a while and I feel attuned to the land, knowing the contours of the sand dunes leading to the beach, listening to the choraling of Australian birds.  

In the car, I tune into Philip Adams, Late Night Live, Rachael Kohn, The Spirit of Things, Dr. Norman Swan, Health Report, Andrew Ford, The Music Show and Claire Nichols, the Book Hub. Long drives. Magpies. Kangaroos. Dogs bounding into the sea.  Older women soaking in the sea – up to their sunhats, long conversations, slowdown sea time.

"Elvis"

Reading Helen Garner’s stories and re-reading Elizabeth Jolley, Woman in a Lampshade. On holiday weekends, there’s the crimson capped marathon swimmers, the more serene stand-up paddlers, the kite flyers, the kayakers, the sails and the motorboats specs in the distance, the bodysurfers and the kids being pulled along on surfboards.

While I’m in the sea, a shaggy golden retriever called Elvis dog- paddles up to me in the water, looking very much like his shambolic owner, also in the water.  All Elvis needs are those dark shades and we could be rockin’ it together to some groovy tune. Elvis gives me a daggy grin and then, with a waggy swish of his tail, he’s off again to find another swimmer.

My prime reason for being in Australia is because of family. My dad is very sick and I’m fortunate to be able to work from here for a while. As a result, I’ve been immersed in the world of those needing care –those who are old, sick, and/or have a disability.

My family learns about a new in-home support service created by three guys in Brisbane called Five Good Friends. The name refers to research conducted by the American, Dan Buettner, that identifies communities that have Blue Zones, where people live longer due to their connections with friends. Optimum quality of later life revolves around having a lifelong close circle of five core friends.

What’s different about this model is that it’s flexible and people-centered. Instead of my parents having to go through a central facility managed by coordinators they never see, with Five Good Friends, the coordinator sits down with them to discuss their needs, tailors the arrangements and then they can make and change arrangements directly with the people who provide their care.  

There’s also an app to track and change appointments, although those being cared for don’t have to use it. However, other members of the family can have access to the app so we can track changes in the care being provided and the costs. With Five Good Friends, the coordinator works from home rather than from a central office and people work as independent contractors, so they also have the flexibility of hours to suit their needs. With this approach, the company can keep overheads low and thus keep costs manageable for those needing care.

Rebecca Perry, the coordinator for South Australia, tells me “I am a dietitian and have been drawn to this sector after my father experienced a spinal cord injury 5 years ago. He is now an incomplete quadriplegic and needs to use a wheelchair so has complex care needs. I learnt about how well Five Good Friends operates so I’m delighted that I can be part of the team.”

Five Good Friends is the brainchild of Tim Russell, the founder of RetireAustralia, and his two school friends and founders of successful tech startup everydayhero, Simon Lockyer and Nathan Betteridge.

Russell resigned the CEO role at RetireAustralia in May 2015 and was joined by Simon and Nathan to establish Five Good Friends. They secured external funding and have taken the service to the wider market. Now, in addition to in-home support, the company is signing on partnerships with other providers to ensure a suite of in-home services including nutrition, physiotherapy and occupational therapy.

I can see the possibilities for this service to go even further. Taking my parents to Centrelink, and seeing people line up in wheelchairs, with limited mobility, very frail, very sick, with mental illness, to do things like sign up for disability allowance or carer’s allowance, how much easier it would be for home providers like Five Good Friends to be registered to do identity checks and provide assistance so that people are helped in their homes or local communities.

In San Francisco and Sydney and many cities around the world, whether it’s Airbnb, Uber, Lyft, UberEats, WeWork, is changing the way we access goods and services and the way we work.  Now with Airbnb, the experiences it’s offering to people means it’s positioning itself as an experiential company rather than an accommodation provider. Similarly, Five Good Friends, and other services like it, will likely be positioned as resilience and well-being companies supporting people to live fully and to age well with the wrap round services and experiences to make this possible.  

The way people are interacting with the sharing economy means that services adapt quickly to meet innovations recommended or crowdsourced by users. The downside is that, at least from what I’ve observed in San Francisco, the sharing economy follows the market and that often results in widening inequality and polarizing poverty. Regulation is thus also key to support innovation while ensuring policies are in place to address inequity.

In Asia, the region’s elderly population is projected to reach nearly 923 million by the middle of this century. This means the region is on track in the next few decades to become one of the oldest demographics in the world.

Most governments in Asia are not well prepared for this vast change and the dramatic social and economic consequences that will flow from this trend. In China, according to the United Nations, the population is ageing more rapidly than almost any other country. Exacerbating this situation is the impact of the One Child Policy in China resulting in ageing parents no longer able to rely on the care and support of their children, governments and populations are having to confront the reality of the situation.

Add to this the effects of climate change including rising sea levels, exposure to more disease, more frequent natural disasters, increased temperatures and what this will mean for people who are vulnerable, frail, isolated, have mobility issues, and different forms of disabilities especially hidden disabilities. Many countries are ill-equipped with physical and social infrastructure as much as regulatory environment and a well-developed civil society geared to advocating for change and addressing these issues.

The work we’ve done at The Asia Foundation is important – including a program called A Fully Abled Nation in the Philippines, established in 2011 initially to create more accessible polling places for upcoming elections and to promote voter rights in the disability sector. It was so successful that it became a major program involving government and civil society to promote the participation of persons with disabilities in electoral and democratic processes.

In Indonesia, the work we’re doing supports people with disabilities to participate in development planning from village level to district level and to assume leadership roles.

This work is vital, especially with the rapid migration to cities, the massive traffic congestion and air pollution issues, all of which will massively increase the challenges for people with disabilities, who are elderly and/or marginalized.

Here in Adelaide, it’s been so hot and a friend from San Francisco emails me – “not much rain. Very mild.”  Climate change is hitting hard. In fact, 2017 was the third hottest year on record in the US and it was also the year that cost the US the most ever with a $300 billion damage bill for hurricanes, forest fires, drought, and flooding. In South Australia, where my family live, the predictions are for the state to get hotter and drier with an increase in drought and fire-related conditions in the years ahead.

Perhaps that’s why I turn ever more frequently to the sea and the ocean. Tonight, the sun setting over the sea was achingly beautiful.  A deep crimson pinwheel spinning out above the water, gaining color and momentum until it filled the sky.

Even the books I’m reading mainly have a water/sea theme. My Life Underwater, Turning: A Swimming Memoir; Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller; Swimming with Seals by Victoria Whitworth and Land’s Edge: A Coastal Memoir by Tim Winton and two non-water themed reads –  An American Marriage by Tayari Jones and Earthsea by the irreplaceable Ursula Le Guin.

For me right now, I’m seeking creative time –for silence, swimming, spirit life, crayoning, dancing – away from noise and frenetic activity. I also visit my favorite tree – a bottle tree – that I’ve been spending time within the Botanic Gardens for over a decade. Back on my sea perch I watch two girls running across the sand with their dog and their parents behind them I think about the different world other girls are experiencing.

Last month in San Francisco at a Lotus Leadership Dinner we honored a girl group from Myanmar called the Colorful Girls.  I was introduced to this group when I first visited Myanmar almost six years ago, and I wrote about the visit in my blog at that time.

When I commenced work at The Asia Foundation I asked if we were supporting the Colorful Girls in Myanmar and I learnt that we were, so I could nominate them for a leadership award.

Colorful Girls in Myanmar – photo credit Whitney Legge

Colorful Girls is a grassroots organization in Myanmar that’s supporting adolescent girls and young women to gain confidence and leadership skills to prevent violence and trafficking and to advocate for their rights.  The organization has supported several thousand girls across the country over the last decade to gain confidence and connections through the programs it offers to girls from diverse cultures, ethnicities and geographies.

Importantly, girls are supported to speak out rather than feel compelled to be docile and quiet and in need of protection. By claiming their voice, girls are also more likely to speak out against abuse rather than stay quiet and be rewarded for enduring the abuse.

Zar Chi Win and Ji Mai are two members of Colorful Girls who are speaking out and sparking change.

Zar Chi Win – photo-credit Whitney-Legge

Zar Chi Win shares her story.  “I joined Colorful Girls in 2011 when I was in 7th grade. At 14, I started working in the garment factory near my home during the summer, when school is out of session. In these factories, most workers are girls and young women. A lot of girls like me—some even younger—work in garment factories. In my factory most of the girls were below the legal age. In that work environment, the most common problem girls face is sexual harassment. I have experienced it myself. My supervisor harassed me, and when I responded to him by shouting back I was fired.

Zar Chi Win was one of the girls who attended a series of workshops we held in Yangon and Mandalay to teach the girls how to organize and mobilize a campaign for social change. She subsequently launched a campaign to combat harassment on public buses alongside other young advocates They gave out whistles to women and girls to blow when they were being harassed. They spoke to bus conductors and fare collectors to get their support and to help anyone who was being harassed.

As Zar Chi Win said, “From that campaign, I learned that we girls can speak out. We can do anything! Now as a Colorful Girls facilitator, I get the opportunity to help other girls become leaders.”  

Ji Mai – photo-credit Whitney-Legge

Ji Mai’s pathway to joining Colorful Girls was very different, as she shares. “In 2012 I was preparing for my 6th grade exam at age 12, when war broke out in our surrounding villages. After fleeing the shelling and searching for a safe place for several months, we finally made our way to a camp for the internally-displaced (IDP) near the state capital of Myiktyina, Kachin State. I have now been living in this camp for over five years.  I joined Colorful Girls in 2014. For girls like us living in IDP camps, we experience discrimination at school: the school divides us war-victims from the students of the host community into separate classrooms, with poorer facilities. This reminds us every day of our low status. Daily survival is difficult for all of us. Some of the girls from my camp drop out of school to search for any possible paid work. During this process they will be exploited; some even become the victims of human trafficking.”

“Some of my fellow girls have little hope, and can’t see any better options, so they will get married while still very young. Due to the living conditions and problems that we face, we have a lot of stress and anxiety. But, when I play sports, it helps me manage and reduce my stress. I get happy while playing sports. It has truly become an outlet for me. Now I coach volleyball for the Colorful Girls. I teach girls from different IDP camps. To meet them, to know them, to do what I am good at, makes me proud, and them hopeful. For all of us who experience trauma and ongoing gender discrimination, playing volleyball together is taking action. We can relieve our stress, learn real teamwork, and gain leadership skills. Confidence and hope are critical for us to take the lead in our own lives and make progress for all girls. “

By mobilizing to confront abuse and violence and using sport to build understanding between different ethnic groups, these girls are actively building cultures of peace and resilience and reshaping the way girls are seen in Myanmar.

Back here in Adelaide, I visit Freya Povey, a friend and nationally renowned ceramicist who gave me the lessons in clay making that I wrote about in my book. Freya hands me a bust of a swimmer, resplendent in a dreamy blue bathing cap, a blue and white striped bathing suit and very red lips.   I call her Bessie. I can’t stop looking at her.

There’s often an essential self to which we return, as a touchstone for our lives when so much is evolving and in flux. For me, it’s swimming in the sea.  This morning, cool and delicious, I run to the sea and plunge in, a small daily act of fearlessness (“aren’t you scared of sharks?”) that makes me feel alive and with a renewed sense of hope.  

That night a big round lemony moon hangs low in the sky and early next morning, as I’m paddling in the sea, horses thunder by, their hoofs half in the water, half on the shore, spraying water on me. There’s magic afoot.

Jane Sloane
Adelaide 2018

Letter From Indonesia #1

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
‘Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me. 

These last lines in Maya Angelou’s poem, ‘Phenomenal Woman’ were scrawled on the inside of a bathroom I entered when I was in Jakarta and I thought how apt it was given my meetings with some of the Global Fund for Women’s grantees and their brave and brilliant work. 

TEDxUbud - Lian Gogali - Indonesian Women's Empowerment in a Post-Conflict SocietyLian Gogali, founder of Institute Mosintuwu in Indonesia, told me about interviewing hundreds of women from refugee camps after the violence in 1998 when President Suharto stepped down and when the media weren’t reporting on
“One conversation with an older woman changed my life. I was telling her that I was recording these stories of the women so that they had a chance to speak about their experiences and she said to me, “yes, but what about after you write about us?  So what?”  My heart went to pieces, I could not answer her. It made me think all the time and changed my perspective on what I needed to do to make a meaningful difference.”what was happening in the camps.  “I wanted their stories to be heard,” Lian said.

“Later, when I was working in Poso, a young man picked me up and told me that a group needed me to explain what I did with my research.  He took me to a local Jihad place where no Christians are allowed.” (Lian is Christian, her father is a Minister).

“At this place there were a group of local Muslim men, militia trained who had come from a Muslim base camp. They asked me what I was doing with my interviews and research and then they asked many questions about Christianity such as ‘what is the concept of the trilogy?’  I told the

m that I respected the Prophet Mohammed as a great spiritual and religious leader and then started talking to these men about the fact that this conflict in Poso wasn’t a religious conflict, between Christians and Muslims, that this was just a tool.  Instead, it was about access to resources, a deadly play for power over natural resources such as hydro-power, and now Palm Oil.”

Lian was doing this work after her family had asked her to leave as they did not accept her as a single mother.  As she says, “Even the women’s rights activists in my community asked me to leave.  I’m an educated woman and yet it’s been very difficult.  I can only imagine what the thousands of women who are not educated go through in their daily struggle just to survive in a patriarchal system.  I strongly believe that education is the key to empowering women. That is what led me to establish the Women’s School.”

Lian conceived the idea of a Women’s School and last year she decided to resign from her job so that she could make this school a reality, initially using her own funds.  She shared her idea with a Dutch woman she met, who helped her to secure seed funding from a Dutch NGO for the school. “After that, I developed a curriculum with the women in the community — with academics, with ac

tivists and with religious and cultural leaders. Our curriculum has eight streams:  peace and tolerance; interfaith movement; religious dialogue; gender awareness; women and culture; women and politics; public speaking; women’s rights in society and in social institutions; economic and political rights and economic community.”

Around 200 women from low socio-economic backgrounds are involved in the Women’s School and Lian hopes to apply to the Global Fund to help establish an interfaith initiative that comprises both the school as well as a safe house and economic and political community  training for the women students.  “We’re also encouraging women to stand for election and, as a result of their going to the school, some are already considering this option. W

e’d also love to link the educational focus with the financial security focus so that women could access small loans and learn financial literacy too,” Lian says.

Poso, the location of the Women’s School, is also the place where a conflict over natural resources is playing out, with devastating consequences. It’s mobilizing the military and the police in a drawn out conflict that is engaging powerful multinationals. Men in families have apparently been encouraged to sell their land to corporations without really thinking through the economic consequences of this loss of land, and women are not engaged in these negotiations.  In other cases, corporations and government will apparently just commandeer the land without even negotiating with the owners.

According to women living in Poso, “the hydro-power companies are the worst, and are also the biggest players. The Vice President of Bukaka disguises his role as peacemaker and benefactor (‘this is a gift for your community’) when all the resources are being drained out of Poso, while Poso struggles with no power, no water.Indonesian companies such as Sinar Mas and Astra involved in Palm Oil extraction are using similar tactics.  The police and military are taking sides in terms of the companies they choose to align with and benefit from, and therefore protect.”

Lian Gogali - Peace Protest - PosoLian’s women’s school is a counterpoint to this situation due to its focus on building women’s social and economic community in a place being stripped of its social and economic assets, as well as its sense of culture, identity and community.  Lian shared with me one such story of non-violent protest by these women in solidarity. “We brought together 50 Christian and Muslim women in a peaceful protest – we all held hands saying ‘This is political and economic – this is not religious’ – and these are all housewives who have never done anything like this before.  One woman said ‘If I die, I will feel like I have done something in the name of peace.'”

Following Lian on this journey over the last two years has been Sue Useem, a documentary filmmaker based in Bali who has produced an 80 minute film of Lian’s story that will be released in the US early next year. “I was looking for a focus for a new film and I was introduced to Lian in Poso and when she told me what she intended to do I thought this was really interesting. I followed Lian from the beginning as she found her feet and navigated being a single mother as well as founder of the Women’s School, securing the funds to support its operation. I also followed a number of her students through their progress and it was incredible to see their transformation. The culmination of the film is Lian accepting the Co-Exist Prize last year in Washington for her work.

Education is seen by many to be the key to addressing violence.  Yet, some women who are qualified to make a direct contribution tell me that they are held back by the corruption rampant within the educational system. In Candidasa, Dina, who has a degree in education, says “I would need at least $US20,000 (bribery) payment to secure a position as a teacher in a State school.”  Her associate, Uki, agrees: “In order to address the issues of school attendance, especially for girls, we need to pay attention to some key issues. We need to educate parents about the value of their children being educated, and specially focus on girls getting educated.  We also need to help parents to identify ways to offset the expenses of their children getting educated; and we also need to address the isolation factors, such as transport, that remain a persistent barrier to more girls going to school.”

While elementary school is free, all the associated costs (uniforms, books, transport) are not and so only about 40% of children in rural villages get an elementary education and the rest are required to work, largely at manual labor in the fields. This attendance figure drops off dramatically for secondary school where the cost to a parent is three million rupiah. Thus there is a need to support a scholarship fund as well as women’s access to micro-loans in order to begin to turn around the situation for families in rural and remote communities.

As Uki explained, “Women don’t have a place to gather in most villages and so we see the opportunity to also organize gathering spaces to encourage women to be advocates for children’s education – and especially girls’ education since girls are still treated as secondary after the boys in the family.  We’d also like to encourage them to be community leaders to address other issues such as the increasing incidence of HIV and AIDS (exacerbated by the high number of tourists) and address violence against women.”

Violence against women is increasing.  As Uki says, “Men and women marry young and then men often turn to drink due to lack of work and then start abusing their wives and sleeping with other women.  Women don’t have the confidence or collective support from meeting in a shared space to either know their rights or to imagine a different future for themselves.  Showing them that education is the key for their daughters is some of the most important work we can do, coupled with ensuring that trained teachers are available to teach in rural as well as urban communities.”

Pundi Perempuan was formed as the first Women’s Fund in Indonesia as a result of the violence that erupted after President Soeharto left office. Anik Wusari, the Executive Director, says that the National Commission to End Violence Against Women recognized that it needed an organization to mobilize resources using the policy and research data sourced by the Commission.   In 2011 there were 119,107 cases of violence against women, in which 95 percent were domestic violence.  In many areas of the country, social and cultural values justify such violence as normal. “Microfinance support for women would also be fantastic so that women can access small loans,” says Anik. It would also help us to consolidate our work as a women’s fund and give those women who have been experiencing violence the opportunity to rebuild their lives and focus on new opportunities.  Individuals and communities could end the social and cultural acceptance of violence by saying ‘no’ to violence and saying ‘yes’ to women realizing their rights and thus their potential.”

Of course, political will is also crucial to advancing the rights of women in Indonesia. According to a report quoted in the Jakarta Post this week, as of August this year, 282 regulations issued by various state institutions were discriminatory toward women, making it more difficult for them to obtain their rights on economic, social and political issues.

After listening to these women of courage and commitment, I spent time embracing the natural world.  From my perch, I looked out on a Balinese paddy field, watching roosters and ducks crow and quack as they jostled for their own space and did some kind of bird shuffle. Nearby were blue winged birds, flying skyward.  There was a hush all around and I felt Thoreau’s wild ‘yes’ to life.  Being close to nature brings with it a sense of equanimity and peace, a reminder of the beauty of silence.

Earlier, driving to meet Uki and Dina, I’d seen families bathing, exuberant under the spray of a waterfall flowing into a river. Those moments were like still images in a film capturing a common humanity.  Click. Click. Click. That evening, in a small outdoor cafe under a night sky, I watched a young girl and her brother play the gamelan with their musical gongs. The sounds washed over me like a rippling stream.  The two played with a lightness and joy that was lovely to observe.

When they finished I applauded and they turned around and smiled.

Komang, the girl, did a little whirl while her brother, Kadek, pointed to the sky and looked at me. “Yes,” I nodded, “very beautiful.”

I leaned back. Gamelan music under quiverful of stars. Komang brought me a flower and placed it behind my ear. A moment later Kadek stood in front of me. “Shanti,” he said, lightly bringing his hands together. “Yes, Peace,” I said, nodding my head.

Then those two gorgeous souls flowed out of that space, their laughter and movement as musical as their playing.

Their words, their spirit, reminded me of that Gaelic blessing:

Deep Peace
of the running wave to you
Deep Peace
of the flowing air to you
Deep Peace
of the quiet earth to you
Deep Peace
of the shining stars to you
Deep Peace
of the gentle night to you,
moon and stars
pour their healing light on you
Deep Peace to you

and the last strands of a poem –

Keep up the good work, if only for a while, if only for the twinkling of a tiny galaxy.
Wislawa Szymborska 

Jane Sloane – Indonesia

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Letter from Burma #2

“In this moment when we face horizons and conflicts wider than ever before, we want our resources, the ways of strength. We look again to the human wish, its faiths, the means by which the imagination leads us to surpass ourselves.” said the poet and activist, Muriel Rukeyser.

I thought of these poetic lines when our delegation of women leaders in Burma sat listening to the stories told to us by Burmese women who were essentially revolutionary leaders, placing themselves at the front line for their beliefs.

One story we heard was from Aye Thi Khaing, a woman from the Agriculture and Farmers Federation of Myanmar. She shared with us how she agitated for worker rights and went to the International Labor Organization with her protest and was subsequently jailed for six years and two months for associating with an international organization.

By the time she left jail she”d lost her job and Cyclone Nargis had destroyed her home and her husband had died. She felt she had nothing to lose and so said “I will commit myself to work for workers” rights. She subsequently set up more than 70 farmers unions and trained women to become trainers in terms of farmers knowing their rights as food suppliers and women gaining confidence to speak up and not be absorbed by a patriarchal culture. “Farmers will be the majority of the population and are crucial for Burma”s future” she said.

Another woman was a political prisoner in jail for 17 years as a result of agitating for women workers” rights. She said, “I believe that without changes in the people, there will be no changes in Burma.”

“We need to build the confidence of women” said another female activist. “Women have been on the margins for so long that we need to teach each other how to speak out and claim our power our voice and our movement for change.”

In a very different environment to this grass roots organizing, the Commissioners of the newly formed Myanmar National Human Rights Commission are busy building an effective secretariat and carrying out their work. Established on September 5th 2011, the Commission is responsible for promoting and safeguarding the fundamental rights of citizens enshrined in the Constitution. The 15 Commissioners, of which three are women, were appointed by, and report to, the President. As Presidential appointees they will thus need to earn the trust of the people, who have for so long been assaulted by a repressive military regime and who understandably remain wary of those closely associated with the leadership. The Commissioners acknowledged this, and also the navigation and negotiation skills required in such a sensitive role.

We heard of the challenging time the Commissioners had when they felt compelled to raise the issue of political prisoners with the government in a way that wasn”t too confrontational. They wrote an open letter to the President that both acknowledged his concerns about the prisoners and changed the language about the prisoners to be less inflammatory to reflect “prisoners of conscience.” It obviously worked because the President finally released 29,000 prisoners in batches, including those whose release had been advocated by the UN Secretary General and some western countries.

From September 2011 to September 2012, the Commission received 1,035 submissions and from September 2012 the Commission has received 3,772 submissions. Most submissions have been for land grabbing, forced recruitment and 15 rape cases. Some of those accused of rape have already been sent to jail and a couple of the Commissioners paid an impromptu visit to the jail to see that justice had indeed been realized here. The biggest issue for the Commission at present is that they only have a seconded staff of 22 people although recruitment of their own team is underway.

“We have a big head but a small body,” smiled one Commissioner.

I asked about the Commission”s contact with the Human Rights Defenders – “we are human rights defenders!” one of the Commissioners countered, and some of the others nodded. The Chairman said it was hard to separate out the idea of human rights activists and human rights defenders in terms of what these people were doing. He did say they needed to have a closer working relationship with them in the time ahead and would welcome their sharing their own reporting and findings with the Commission. Meanwhile, the Commission is operating in a country where there are no laws to give women protection from domestic violence or from other forms of violence.

On the positive side, organizations like the Women”s Organizations Network, representing 30 women”s organizations in Burma, are advancing the cause of women”s rights through their own fierce and focused advocacy. This includes pursuing a dream to establish a Women”s Leadership Academy to train women, including those from ethnic minorities, to be leaders.

“We want women to not only participate but to be leaders. Without women, there is no genuine peace,” says Shwe Shwe Sein Latt, Advisory Council Member. This progressive women”s organization also has plans for informal and formal education including a mobile network to lift the literacy rate amongst women and girls. And ethnic language classes in order to preserve ethnic languages since only Burmese and English are taught in schools – and often at home too. Many can speak their ethnic language but can”t write it. “We have to empower women to know their rights.and to respect their ethnicity and identity,” Shwe Shwe Sein Latt says.

Ten minutes from the Women”s Organizations Network is the Colorful Girls, a leadership project designed to assist girls ages 13-18 to avoid trafficking, dangerous labor and other forms of violence, by facilitating girls recognition of their potential. The organization works to
promote girls rights in all forums by organizing Colorful Girls Circles, training facilitators, creating curriculum and infusing in girls a belief in their ability to be change-agents and to individually and collectively come up with potential solutions to issues they”re facing.

I walked into the offices of Colorful Girls and into a circle of gorgeous girls aged between 12-17, diverse in identity and circumstance and united in an infectious energy and animated conversation. While I met with the founder, Nant Thazin Min, laughter from the girls floated up to the office where we were talking. The images of those girls and young women gathering took me back to my years of being a member of the YWCA and the sense of belonging those years instilled in me. To date almost 1,000 girls have done the training with plans to extend the training to two more states next year and nationwide in next five years. This is important given growing ethnic tensions and the increase in trafficking and prostitution – all impacting on and involving girls and young women. Like other forms of violence there are no laws in place to protect girls and young women from being trafficked while, according to Nant Thazin Min, there are an increased number of girls being sold into prostitution by their parents due to grinding poverty.

I carry these stories of the brave, courageous women of Burma with me, and with a pledge from myself and others to do all that we can to support them and to secure funding to assist their work in the time ahead. As one Burmese rights organizer, who declined to be named, pointed out, “we don”t have a road map for the time ahead. Our compass is our ethics, and our commitment to women being a part of the peace process and the realization of democracy in this country.”

The rules break like a thermometer,
quicksilver spills across the charted systems,
we”re in a country that has no language
no laws, we”re chasing the raven and the wren
through gorges unexplored since dawn
whatever we do together is pure invention
the maps they gave us were out of date
by years.

Adrienne Rich

Jane Sloane – Burma

Letter from Burma #1

Aung San Suu Kyi

Today, on December 10th, International Human Rights Day in Burma, I met Aung San Suu Kyi.  The tingling I felt wasn’t just from the experience of meeting this extraordinary woman of courage, grace, determination and resilience, it was also from the convergence of meeting her in Burma, itself at a tipping point, and meeting her on the first International Human Rights Day to be commemorated in this country since 1988.

Years ago I’d torn out of magazines the romantic images of Aung San Suu Kyi with her husband, Michael Aris, soon after their marriage, entranced by the image of them both, and so conscious in looking at these pictures, of their lives, their destiny, since that time.

I was sitting next to Kirsty Sword Gusmao, a member of the delegation of Australian women leaders whom I’d joined for our time in Burma. Kirsty, as wife of the Prime Minister of Timor Leste, shared with her husband a story equally romantic and dramatic in the realization of a free and independent Timor Leste – with the poet revolutionary becoming the new nation’s first President and his beautiful wife and soul mate beside him for the journey.

And now, just after we’d each met her, here was Aung San Suu Kyi stepping up on to the stage to speak to a packed room of diplomats, delegates, journalists and representatives from civil society.

 If my voice counts then so does yours. 

 Human rights must be based not just on your own opinions but on those of others.

 Unless we can learn from others and respect others’ opinions then how will we be able to respect human rights for all?  We need to respect those whose opinions are different from ours and those whose opinions are opposed to ours as part of our commitment to honoring human rights for all.

 We must promote freedom of speech and create greater understanding among all of us.  We must listen to the voices of others and go beyond just listening to seek understanding so that we can broaden our horizons and make our world one based on greater understanding…

 If we want to build real respect for human rights then we must learn to truly communicate. Only then will we build genuine respect for human dignity…It is the birthright of every human being.

 The voices of all people must be heard in this world.  People must make their voices count and make their voices strong. And we must build not from above but from below in order to create a strong foundation.  The voices of the people must count. 

Her speech was followed by an abundance of others and it was preceded by an important speech from H.E. Aung Min, trusted advisor of the President of Burma. His opening sentences were:

 It is an honor for me to speak to you on this important day to celebrate human dignity. It is a day to rejoin in a universal idea – an idea that binds people regardless of where they are from, the color of their skin, their gender or what their faith is.  It is a day to celebrate an idea that requires governments to be better – an idea that requires all of us to be better.  Today, as I stand before you and reflect on the past year, I am proud of the reforms President U Thiein Sein’s Government has carried out to improve human dignity in Myanmar, but at the same time mindful that the kind of society the people of Myanmar envision requires all of us to strive harder.

What a time to be here, I thought, and to hear a speech like this, that would have seemed unimaginable only a couple of years ago. Among the others who spoke was U Ko Ko, Vice President of the Myanmar Journalists Association who said

“It’s been a remarkable year for us.  Media here is now in transition, reporting the voices of our citizens.  We are all entitled to our human rights, they are indivisible. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said ‘press freedom is the cornerstone of human rights. In our country, we have struggled for independent media and for media pluralism.  Even now there is a need for community radio and for public service media in order to lift up the right of expression by the people.

 Larry Jagan, freelance journalist, ex BBC, responded to the speeches by reminding everyone present that there were still political prisoners in jail.  “Until they’re released we’re not going to be able to respect human rights here in the way that we should.”

It felt great being in Burma as a group of a dozen Australian-born women leaders. We heard some challenging facts and stories in our first two days of briefings. From the Free Trade Union Movement, 90% of the extractive industries and energy industry are outside of trade union framework and the age group of the members is predominantly under 25 years.  At the United Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry in Myanmar (UMFCCI) we were told “we don’t have stigma for women’s human rights. There is no discrimination.”

When I asked about the research to support the speaker’s claims the speaker confessed there was none.  I looked at the back photo of the UNFCCI brochure we’d been provided – a pic of the Vice Presidents and Senior Officials of UNFCCI.  I counted 71 men and 2 women all staring resolutely at the camera.  A minute later we heard from another speaker. “We have to have affirmative action for men! They are not as involved as women!” one of the young male researchers at our meeting proclaimed.  “Perhaps they should work harder,” Hon Janelle Saffin responded drily.

“Talk comes from the gun, not the mouth,” said one human rights defender speaking at a briefing by human rights defenders at the Action Aid office.In Kachin State we heard that “at the local level, whichever armed group comes, it is us who have to pay, the only difference being that the groups use different levels of brutality depending on if the population is of the same ethnic group as themselves or not.”  This included rape, and loss of livelihoods and land.

In Kayah State, “drugs are a real problem – Burma is the second largest producer of heroin after Afghanistan.”  In other areas of the country we hear about land confiscation by corporations — “The companies and the land records department are linked and the companies are more powerful… so if they want to grab the land for rubber or other purposes, then they can,” said one human rights defender.

At Marie Stopes International we heard that 80% plus of health care cost comes out of the pockets of patients – which means that, as the Country Director described it, “people are often at a tipping point into a chasm of poverty. This has resulted in thousands of girls and young women being trafficked each year together with increased prostitution.”

In terms of education we learnt from another agency that half the under-five population is not able to read or write, thus posing a massive development challenge. Pathways to secondary and tertiary education are broken.  The fact that there’s a massive gender imbalance is veneered by enrolment rates – many, many more girls are dropping out even if enrolment rates are more on par.

At a Peace Center we heard that all Program Directors at the Center bar one were male and the message was effectively that women stay at home to take care of their families and households while men are at the front lines of the negotiating table. We learnt that male politicians and business men expect to negotiate with, and deal with, men and you can’t change that culture overnight. Men have to be responsive to that dynamic.  Clearly UN Resolution 1325 (women’s active involvement in peace-keeping, peace-making and peace-building) was not something that had been embraced by the management of this center.

Later we visited a kindergarten where moon faced children looked up in wonder at the Amazonian women before them.  There was something infectious about watching these children play and soon we were dodging the dodgems, with kids in plastic cars hurtling at us, joining a dance with bears, playing chasey and hide and seek.

One little girl, Cheri, came up and patted my face then pulled me into the library and ran to the bookshelf.  I looked at some of the titles Kindness is RewardedMa Pu Kywe and the SnailMaster Po and The TigerMs. Little Frog and Ms. Big FrogThe Foolish Boy and The TroubleThe Old Lady and The Magical LakePrincess with the Long Nose.

Inya Lake -BurmaThere was for me a sense of the mythic all around, not just in the titles of these books.  We looked out onto Inya lake after hearing Aung San Suu Kyi speak, the same lake that had been a kind of watery fortress for the many years she was under house arrest.

The great golden Shwedagon Pagoda was visible to us as we traveled each day, where the holy hair relics of the Buddha were enshrined more than 2,500 years ago.  This was the icon to which the eyes of our Burmese guides turned each day and where the Buddhist rituals of water offerings, candles, incense sticks and flowers to the Buddha formed a continual prayer in motion.

Shwedagon Pagoda. (CC) Jean-Marie Hullot

Back at the kindergarten, Cheri pulled out one of my favorite books from childhood – Pippi Longstocking – too old for her but I guess something drew her to Pippi the way it drew me. Truly, there is more that unites us than divides us, I thought as she ran up with another book, Daisy Dawson is On Her Way.  And so Cheri settled into my lap and I began to read to her until she fell asleep.  Daisy realized that she could understand exactly what the blackbird was singing about.  The notes spin softly around her like strands of silk weaving a song about clouds and apples and sunshine and stars…

Jane Sloane – Burma

 

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Letter from Papua New Guinea #4

“See those girls there,” a female pastor says from the back-seat of the vehicle we’re in, pointing to a group of girls who looked between 11-15 years of age; they are likely part of a prostitutes ring encouraged by older girls.

Prostitution is increasingly common in Papua New Guinea, especially for girls needing income for themselves and their families in order to get an education.  The cost of going to college is between $US3,000 and $US6,500 per year.  And for many people who struggle on the poverty line for most of their lives, the dream of an education for themselves or their family is just that.

“I know parents who have given up their entire retirement fund to give their daughter an education,” an educator tells me.  And yet there are many other families with little income and living in deep poverty who struggle to send their daughter to school.  Help may come in the form of a rich uncle who may pay for his niece’s education and then want payback from her and her family in return.  He may have sex with the girl, claim her as his own and she may get pregnant and be unable to continue her studies as a result.

Such was a case told to me while I was visiting an educational institution. “That’s why we need scholarships for girls and young women, including those who are married as they still have their dreams and aspirations,” says the educator.

Girls now expect to be raped because it’s so commonplace here.  Women say ‘we’ve all been and we all will be raped’.  It’s also why girls wear shorts under their dresses – apparently so they can make a quick get-away if needed. “I would estimate, at this college, almost 90% of girls have been interfered with,” said one educational professional, “but they would never say because it’s considered shame related.” Incest too is not talked about, even though it is said to be on the increase.

Girls whose mothers re-marry are seen to be at greater risk due to exposure to their step-fathers.  In this situation, girls don’t feel they can talk and their mothers’ don’t feel they can act as their husbands will banish them from the home and they will have nowhere to live.

Girls are often forced to get married to provide security for their family and my sister friend, Lilly, says a man may grab a young woman off the road.  “Two weeks ago I heard of a girl who was standing by the road and a man came up in his car and said “You are my wife, I’ve been looking for you, where have you been?” It was only because another man who knew the girl was standing by and stopped the man taking the girl that she was saved from this fate.”

I’d hope that at the Global Fund for Women we can support the National Council of Women in a campaign to support girls to be safe and secure, especially through the new global Girls not Brides campaign.

Another story told to me was of a family that owed a man some money and so he said he’d take their twin daughter instead.  The twin apparently knew her rights but she didn’t know how she could enforce them and so she committed suicide.

JanetSape-DameCarol Kidu-Julie SosoWhen the legendary Dame Carol Kidu, until recently the only woman in a Papua New Guinean Parliament, tried to introduce a law into Parliament banning marital rape, the male politicians all cried ‘interference in the bedroom!!!” and there was uproar in Parliament resulting in the bill being howled down in protest.  Wily Dame Kidu got it through in the end, anyway.

She bided her time, until the last session of Parliament in 2002 and bundled it in with a series of amendments to a Child Sex Exploitation and Rape Bill.  And so the law banning marital rape finally did pass and it was months later before all her all male Parliamentary colleagues found out that they’d been ‘asleep at the wheel’ and the legislation had passed when only a few members were in Parliament, impatient to leave and go on holidays.  Such is the balance of diplomacy, strategic planning and foxy action that defines a stellar politician.

Dame Carol is also an extraordinary humanitarian and women’s human rights defender who is wise and nuanced in her recognition and articulation of the issues facing women and girls in Papua New Guinea.

“There’s a lot of lateral violence against women and girls.  From a young age, girls are diminished by being told “don’t speak, you’re only a girl,” and so when we’re talking about violence against women and girls then we have to tackle the psychological violence so that girls can grow up feeling empowered.  We also need to pay more attention to emotional and social wellbeing and provide anger management training for men.  I think that men and women are under a lot of stress, living between two worlds – tribal law and culture, and contemporary law and culture.”

Dame Carol’s retirement from Parliament is sorely missed, especially at a time when there’s a push to endorse a bill for Temporary Special Measures that would give women 22 guaranteed seats in Parliament.   There’s also a desire by many women to see connections bridged between women parliamentarians and women’s rights organizations in order to build women’s political agenda. There’s a recognition that such an agenda really needs a critical mass of women in Parliament to champion and advance it.  And herein lies the rub.

Prominent PNG Greens leader, and staunch environmental activist, Dorothy Tekwie told a post election review panel:

“As a female, I thought that I was smart and I could do it.  It just hit me so hard because first of all, I didn’t see how cruel, how terrible, the system was against people who want to come in and do the right thing.  The system is not supporting principle-based leadership, people who are fighting corruption, people who are trying to do the right thing by the people.”

“Politics in Papua New Guinea is totally, totally something for big men and I mean men with money (who) are ruthless, and all the sponsors of political parties support big man politics in Papua New Guinea.  They don’t support little me whose is trying to do the right thing – or little him who’s trying to do the right thing by our people,” she said. “I can’t raise the kind of money that others can (millions) through going to industry and corporate donors.  I can’t accept money from people who are intent on environmental destruction…I was personally offered K5 million not to stand so that I would not support the bill on 22 reserved seats for women.”

Julie Soso, Governor of Eastern Highlands, is one of three women who did manage to get a seat in National Parliament.  She got in on her fourth time of campaigning for a seat because lots of ‘small people’, the 99 percenters, voted for her because they knew her and trusted her.

There are 111 seats in Parliament and 56 votes are needed to pass the legislation to guarantee women 22 seats in Parliament.  In this country, if you’re standing for election the idea of ‘give and take’ is “give us the money to vote for you and then take the power.”  We are told that, if you want me to vote for you then you have to pay me to do so. “I’ve been asked to provide someone with a Toyota Landcruiser,” said one woman, “and another man asked me to give him a gun in return for voting for me.”

“With council elections you will need at least 30,000 kina to run whereas for National Parliament you really need at least one million kina to run.  If we get the support of Parliament for those 22 seats for women then we will mobilize a strong women’s movement in this country and be able to put up candidates who have the same heart, drive and ethics as Dame Carol Kidu.

Dame Carol herself estimates it will take three generations without the Temporary Special Provisions to get women the representation and critical mass they need in Parliament.  Without denying the important victory of three women in Parliament, they still only represent 1.1% of the total number in Parliament.

“That’s why women need a strong National Council of Women base”, says my new friend, Mary. “One that unites women across the country and men in support of women’s empowerment.  A council with its own operating base, linked to a series of women’s resource and incubation centers in rural PNG.  Places where women can go to organize, get skilled up and fired up.  When we Meri (women) come together under the banner of UNITY we will be unstoppable.  We’ll have the economic freedom, the social networks and the political power to make this country work for all of us and not just for the men.”

She beams at me, a kind of Mother Earth, Mama Hip figure in her billowing dress, “Amen to that!!”

 

Jane Sloane – Papua New Guinea

 

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