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 India

The Asia Foundation - Jane Sloane visit to Jal Bhagirathi Foundation Water Project
Jane Sloane visit to Jal Bhagirathi Foundation Water Project Photo by Vivek Singh

I was headed to India for work although I was concerned about the warnings being made by Indian doctors about the toxic nature of the Delhi smog. A young woman aged 20 would be six times more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer at age 40 because of exposure to this toxic air. Breathing in the air was like smoking 40 cigarettes a day.

photo by Jools

Social media was alight with stories and images. A new Right to Breathe movement was gaining momentum because of what has been happening in India and in other countries too in terms of rising air pollution and people on the ground fighting for their rights. The latest report in the Guardian Weekly of the lifelong damage to unborn babies contributes to the urgency to avert a global health catastrophe. I headed for my local hardware store and bought an industrial strength face mask and then changed my flight to Jodhpur in Rajasthan in the hope that the smog would lift before I had to fly to New Delhi.

The Asia Foundation - Jane Sloane visit to Jal Bhagirathi Foundation Water Project
photo by Vivek Singh

In Rajasthan, I met with colleagues and we joined Kanupriya Harish, Executive Director, Jal Bhagirathi Foundation (JBF) and her colleagues Santana Khurana and Inderjeet Singh, to visit work JBF is leading and which has been supported over the years by The Asia Foundation and other organizations.

This work enables desert communities of the Marwar region of Rajasthan to develop rainwater harvesting techniques that support their sustainability, health and food security. Importantly, the work reduces the burden on women walking 3-4 miles each day, often in scorching heat, to collect safe drinking water. It also saves the communities major expenditure in purchasing water for essential needs, which contributes to poverty reduction.

The Asia Foundation - Jane Sloane visit to Jal Bhagirathi Foundation Water Project
photo by Vivek Singh

In villages where communities have constructed sand dams, they’ve been able to recharge wells and grow crops such as cumin, green chilies and mustard to be sold at local markets. This allows families to support their children staying in schools and keeping healthy. Trainers working with these communities encourage women to play a key advocacy role in securing toilets in each home to reduce the health risks they otherwise face.

The Asia Foundation - Jane Sloane visit to Jal Bhagirathi Foundation Water Project
photo by Vivek Singh

What’s great about the JBF’s work is that it’s reviving inexpensive, simple traditional rainwater harvesting technology to address the drinking water needs of drought-stricken populations. This includes community-led water management systems to tap runoff from the catchment area, and from above and underground rainwater-harvesting tanks near the village. Women are encouraged to be part of the water management group and to play an active role in the maintenance of these water governance systems.

The Asia Foundation - Jane Sloane visit to Jal Bhagirathi Foundation Water Project
photo by Vivek Singh

It was inspiring to see this work and to learn that The Asia Foundation was the first funder of this work some 15 years ago, recognizing the critical importance of food, water and energy security to rural and desert communities where in summer, with the scorching heat, temperatures regularly spike to 50 degrees Celsius. We were visiting during the cooler months, and even then it was still warm. We set off in 4-wheel drive vehicles and mid-way we switched to jeeps for the rugged sand hill drives to local villages.

The Asia Foundation - Jane Sloane visit to Jal Bhagirathi Foundation Water Project
photo by Vivek Singh
The Asia Foundation - Jane Sloane visit to Jal Bhagirathi Foundation Water Project
photo by Vivek Singh

The organization engages community trainers to work with local communities to have them map the houses in a village, the water access points near the village (and how far women need to walk) and then where people in the village defecate (just about everywhere). This visual mapping precedes a conversation about the value of building water storage facilities inside the village and the value of every household having a toilet.

The Asia Foundation - Jane Sloane visit to Jal Bhagirathi Foundation Water Project
photo by Vivek Singh

While the government does provide some compensation to those villagers who build their own water tanks and toilets, they still must front the funds to build these facilities. Having communities and households raise the funds for part of the overall cost means they’re more likely to be invested in maintaining these facilities too. There’s also the challenge of lethargy, motivating individuals within communities sufficiently to ensure that the construction work required gets done.

Speaking about the foundation’s work Kanupriya Harish, its Executive Director, said “The model that JBF uses draws on a unique amalgam of some 20,000 village-level volunteers assisted by technical staff to develop water harvesting.”

Harish added, “Living in the desert makes people and communities resilient – otherwise survival is perilous.”

The Asia Foundation - Jane Sloane visit to Jal Bhagirathi Foundation Water Project
photo by Vivek Singh

“Beyond the construction of the rainwater tanks for rainwater harvesting and toilets for sanitation is the creation of sand dams. These sand dams allow the rivers to still flow, but they slow down the flow and, by so doing, this contains the river as this creates clean drinking water downstream as the sand acts as a filter. Each year there is greater access to water since more sand settles. This results in more fresh drinking water for villages as well as to support agriculture, tree planting and land management, and thus the self-sufficiency of villages because one dam supports 103 wells in different villages,” Harish said.

The Asia Foundation - Jane Sloane visit to Jal Bhagirathi Foundation Water Project
photo by Vivek Singh

This water harvesting supports communities to have year-round access with water user associations called Jal Sabhas comprised of women and men from the villages. The associations establish pricing mechanisms for collecting a user charge to support the long-term maintenance of the water structures. Supporting women to have a greater voice in decision-making in water and natural resource management is crucial to incorporate their perspectives and build their capacity to be able to respond and adapt to climate change.

This work on water management has taken on greater urgency given the estimates that the earth’s surface temperature will increase by at least 2°C this century with Rajasthan as one of the most vulnerable states in India that will be adversely impacted. With high temperatures in summer, average annual rainfall of only 200mm and with annual 40% chance of drought, the region faces acute water scarcity. With with the worsening forecast, there is a huge need to act.

The Asia Foundation - Jane Sloane visit to Jal Bhagirathi Foundation Water Project
photo by Vivek Singh

As we drove across sand country I watched young girls walking across the land. Rajasthan remains highly traditional in terms of attitudes toward women and girls with girls as young as five or six being married or committed to a boy or man, even though the legal age of marriage is 18.

That’s why addressing attitudes toward women and girls is so crucial to changing the status quo. The Asia Foundation has been supporting the pilot of an initiative called a Gender Lab for Boys as part of a Blue-Ribbon Campaign to ignite a boy’s movement for gender equality in India and this video gives a sense of what’s possible through this work.

I hope we can secure the funds to extend the Gender Lab pilot across all of India as this is where change begins – in the hearts and minds of boys and the way they see their own masculinity as much as their attitudes and behavior toward girls – and girls knowing, and being able to advocate for, their rights.

After returning from a 12-hour day in the field, my colleague, Aditya, and I are invited to join Prithvi Raj Singh, the founder and Managing Trustee of JBF and Kanupriya, for dinner at the Water Resource Centre (WRC) in Jodhpur. The centre is located at the historic Bijolai Palace, nestled in the Aravalli Hills, that was built by Maharaja Takhat Singh and given to JBF for its restoration and use. Adjacent to the palace is the sprawling Bijolai Lake, a traditional rainwater-harvesting structure. At night, it felt mythic and stories were spun under a midnight blue sky.

The next day we flew to Delhi and my industrial strength mask seemed inadequate to the level of pollution that hits us on the tarmac. My body felt like it was going into toxic shock and I worked to calm my mind as much as my body. Once we got to an area where trees were more plentiful I felt myself relax more. I’ve been reading a book called Indira Gandhi, A Life in Nature and, in this book, Indira Gandhi tells the story of 250 years ago where the King of what is now Rajasthan ordered the felling of trees in the forest and how more than three hundred men and women belonging to the Bishnoi community sacrificed their lives while resisting this order. In the 1970s Indira Gandhi would pay tribute to the Chipko movement in India in the hill districts of Uttar Pradesh where community members would sacrifice themselves in a similar way by hugging the trees to prevent them being felled. The Right to Breathe Movement is focused on tree planting to sustain the lungs of the earth, coupled with advocating for regulations to address the dangerous combination of exhaust from vehicles running on dirty fuel, diesel generators, road dust, burning of waste and crop burning.

Once I was back in Sausalito again I returned to my restorative yoga class, a Friday early evening ritual that restores my sense of balance. The last Friday of each month our yoga teacher, Mirabai, is joined by Timothy, a didgeridu player who plays over our bodies as we do long relaxing postures. “Those who know how to deeply rest know the art of vitality,” Mirabai says. I think a lot about the toll that continuous travel takes and about how challenging it is for many people to commit to self-care. We’re becoming so endlessly busy in our work, social media and activities that we neglect the need to stop and find ways to deeply rest.

Coupled with this is the need to find time for our creative selves. Recently I re-watched a special on Joni Mitchell’s life called A Woman of Heart and Mind that my friend, Thatch, sent to me. I’m struck by Joni’s honesty and authenticity in her search to find balance between love and commitment in a relationship and her fierce need for her creative time as an artist.

Joni Mitchell speaks movingly in the video of wanting to end the pattern of her mother’s and her grandmother’s frustration that they didn’t have this creative time, and of her grandmother breaking down a door in her urgent need to have this creative space. So, Joni ended her engagement to Graham Nash and (literally) went out into the wilderness for a year from which came her album, Blue. There’s a beautiful image of Joni lifting her arms like wings as she seemingly goes to lift off like a bird from the snow she’s walking across. A slow snow kind of dance.

For me, I’ve sought to carve out the space to draw and dance and –most especially — write in a liminal space where I can feel expansive in my thoughts and dreaming self. Time in Kauai gave me that gift this year.

Returning to my boat in Sausalito I see that many of the surrounding boats have Christmas lights strung from their bows and windows. My neighbor, Joe, has mounted the largest possible heart wired with tiny red lights across the front of his boat as a reminder of what’s important this holiday season. I can imagine its large enough for passengers on a plane to look down and see that winking message of love.

Jane Sloane
India/Sausalito

[metaslider id=”4647″] (photos by Vivek Singh)

Letter From San Francisco #23

Since I last wrote, I’ve had a few weeks back in San Francisco and then time traveling again, this time to the diverse territories of Mongolia, Cape Town and Kauai. So, in my letter below, I share some of what happened, at home and away, over the last month or so.

What happens when you get a woman judge appointed to a courthouse in Pakistan? Aside from perhaps a different take on the factors fueling violence and crime, there is the sudden creation of a female toilet. This meant that all at once women who were required to testify in court in response to violence perpetrated against them could stay long enough to be able to testify rather than having to leave and not testify because there was no female toilet in the building.

Such are the simple acts that contribute to access to justice.

At a time when spaces for women’s organizing are diminishing and there’s less donor funding to support women’s political engagement, it’s critical to support getting more women into positions of influence, whether it be in parliaments, companies or courthouses. The political dimensions of empowering women need to be recognized and supported rather than seen as a sideline or follow-up to supporting women’s economic empowerment. Women’s economic and political empowerment are intrinsically linked and need to be funded in tandem rather than sequentially. With so much happening domestically, donors are pulling back from funding internationally at precisely the time where funding locally and globally is vital. At present only 12% of US foundations are funding women and girls internationally.

Last month I had the privilege of facilitating a session on Women at the Frontlines at the Women’s Funding Network Conference. The Asia Foundation organized for Professor Christine Chinkin, Founding Director of the Centre for Women, Peace and Security at London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), Jalila Haider, a human rights attorney, the first female attorney of her Hazara community, and founder of We the Humans – Pakistan and Vivienne Wee, a feminist activist, anthropologist and public intellectual and co-founder of AWARE, an organization working for gender justice in Singapore to share their views.

During our conference session when I asked Jalila Haider about the death threats she was receiving in response to her advocacy for women’s rights and access to justice, she responded that she knew she would be killed, it was only a matter of when. Jalila spoke of the isolation of her work in Pakistan and of the fact that women lawyers know the laws but as feminists, they don’t know their rights. We explored what the creation of a women in law network in Pakistan – and across Asia – could represent in terms of the support and solidarity for women who are human rights defenders in their work and advocacy.

Christine Chinkin is a rock star in the field of women, peace and security and she’s been at the forefront of many important peace negotiations across the globe as well as her sustained work in demonstrating that where women are involved in peace negotiations, there is characteristically a higher chance of agreement being reached and lasting. Christine Chinkin has also led important new programs at the Centre on Women, Peace and Security (CWPS) at the LSE. including the creation of an Activist-in-Residence program. We spoke of the possibility of Jalila having this opportunity to be located at the centre for a while through this program, considering the death threats she is experiencing, and the centre is now pursuing this option for Jalila.

In our conference session Vivienne Wee reminded us all that there’s no peace and security if there is violence against women,” And then she shared a story:

This story derives from the advocacy of AWARE, the feminist organisation in Singapore to which I belong and which I represent at this conference. For some time, we were troubled by the insensitive attitudes and behaviours of police officers to women who report being raped and sexually assaulted.

Most of these officers blamed the women for being victims, attributing the crime to their clothes, behavior and so on. Sometimes they did not even want to record the cases that were being reported. And even when the officers did record cases, the investigation was dragged out and very inadequate.

So, what AWARE did three years ago was to write a report that documented twenty such cases. Then we presented our report to some powerful policy makers, way higher than the police officers in police stations. Our report was taken seriously by these policy makers, who then ordered the Serious Sexual Crimes Branch of the police force to meet with us regularly. At a meeting, we asked the officers representing the Serious Sexual Crime Branch whether there was a hidden agenda to reject reports of rape and sexual assault so that the crime rate would be lower. They categorically assured us that there is no such intent. They then told us to report insensitive police officers who fail to do their duty. Three years later, in Feb this year, the Government announced initiatives to promote a more victim-centric approach in the handling of sexual assault cases by the criminal justice system. What’s significant about these new initiatives is they aim at improving police processes and capabilities on a systemic level, not just on a case by case basis. For example, the new initiatives include a new centre that will conduct forensic and medical examinations of sexual crime victims in a private facility, instead of taking them to a public hospital. The Home Affairs and Law Minister stated that a key issue is to encourage victims to come forward and not add to their trauma. The Government also announced its ongoing collaboration with AWARE.

What lessons can we draw from this success story? First, we identified a baseline of the situation. In this case, we characterised the situation 3 years ago as position 3 – that is, sexual crimes were condemned in words but not in actions. Our aim was to have sexual crimes condemned in words and actions. So, our next task was to identify powerful allies who would listen to us on this one issue. Perhaps we cannot mobilise them on every single issue. But for this one issue of changing the insensitive attitudes and behaviours of police officers to women reporting rape and sexually assault, can we count on them? We were successful in forming alliances with powerful policy makers who could make decisions and take initiatives. The next important thing is that we established a regular channel of communication with decision-makers. This enabled us to provide ongoing feedback to them. It also opened opportunities for collaboration, such as making a training video for police officers.

Another important lesson from this story is about the distance to travel. The distance is relatively short for changing position 3 to position 4 – that is, from condemnation of sexual crimes in words but not in actions to condemnation of these crimes in words and actions. But if you have an existing situation where violence is not even discussed in public as a social issue – that is, position 1 where people turn a blind eye – then it is too far to leap from this to condemnation of sexual crimes in words and actions. This lesson is relevant for funders who may focus on the formulation and implementation of laws and policies, regardless of where we are starting from. In a situation where violence is ignored, having this discussed in public as a social issue already makes a difference. Or if violence is condoned in the name of culture, including religion, public recognition that nothing justifies violence already makes a difference.

In AWARE’s work in Singapore and with our partners in Indonesia and Malaysia, we are realistic about the changes that we can help to bring about, taking into consideration current situations. In situations where it is taboo to talk of certain matters, such as female genital mutilation, we have brought such matters to the surface. In situations where violence is excused in the name of culture, we have promoted public recognition that nothing justifies violence.

After the conference, I flew to Mongolia where I was able to spend time at Women’s Business Center and Incubator Project, funded by the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) and implemented by The Asia Foundation jointly with the City Municipality and other partners.

The center supports women in Ulaanbaatar to overcome cultural, financial and legal barriers to starting their own businesses as well as to connect with other women entrepreneurs in Asia and to speak at key forums to support their leadership and advocacy for policy change.

Prior to the opening of the center, findings from The Asia Foundation’s survey of 150 new and current women entrepreneurs in addition to government officials, bankers, and NGO representatives, identified issues including access to finance, navigating government bureaucracy and accessing networking and professional opportunities available to male peers as key issues affecting women entrepreneurs’ success.

In the first two months of the center’s operation, a total of 721 services were provided and a comment made by one of the women entrepreneurs using the center seemed representative of many: “Before coming to the center, I couldn’t outgrow my problems but the training has given me new ideas and helped me to work more productively. Now my business is improving.”

From Mongolia, I flew to Cape Town where I spent a week as part of the Atlantic Fellowship program I’m undertaking with the Inequalities Institute at London School of Economics. Arriving on a Sunday, I caught a cable car to the top of Table Mountain with its sublime and sweeping vista across the city. Coming down the sky was crayoned crimson, an unfolding sunset as the floor in our cable car turned 360 degrees while we slung ever lower toward the ground. I can understand why it is one of the new 7 Wonders of Nature.

While in Cape Town we spent time in Khayelitsha, one of the informal settlements with a population of 2.4 million of which some 50% are under the age of 19. It’s a place where one of the most dangerous acts you can perform is to go to the toilet.

Sinoxolo Mafevuka was a 19-year-old woman who went to the toilet on the evening of March 2nd, 2016 and her body was found naked after being raped, strangled and dumped in a communal toilet.

She was black, female and poor and living in Cape Town, one of the most unequal places in the world. While in Khayelitsha I talked to Lindiwe Mafuya who has been living in the community for 25 years.

“There’s no safety here. I go to the bushes during the day but it’s too dangerous at night and so I use a bucket because I don’t want to get attacked. It’s dark at night with no protection. Some of the toilets were blocked for six months before someone came from the council to fix them and you can see the state they’re in.”

What gave me hope while I was in Cape Town was the rise of youth organizing, best personified by the Social Justice Coalition which is youth led and run, and that arranged our visit to Khayelitsha. SJC is working with residents in Khayelitsha and other informal communities to hold the government to account for action and changes to improve safety and living conditions for people in these communities. Mandisa Dyanti, SJC’s Deputy Secretary, readily acknowledges that SJC is very different to other community organizations operating in South Africa. ‘We’re youth led, vibrant and connected to the ground – and our composition is reflective of the population of South Africa – our citizens are very young. We’re in this for the long haul.”


On return to San Francisco I prepared for a few days rest –in Kauai. Swimming in Hanalei Bay in Kauai is one of my most favorite things to do as a place only four hours flying time from San Francisco. I swam and swam and swam in the sheltered bay each day with the backdrop of mountains and, frequently, double rainbows. When the rain came the waves came too, so I swung between serene swims in clear water to jumping waves in the wavy sea.

This year I stayed at a cool local place in Hanalei, rented a red beach cruiser bike and hung out with the surfers in the big waves when I wasn’t reading, resting and spending time at Kauai’s farmers’ markets. I went to the local church and sang to the Hawaiian hymns with women playing ukuleles, men singing along and with locals placing fresh purple orchid and tuberose leis around our necks.

I brought a trio of Julia Cameron’s books to spur my own creativity. I returned to her tried and true ritual of morning pages (3 pages of longhand about whatever you’re thinking and feeling to be written each morning) and artist dates (taking yourself to see or experience something new or different that invokes a creative response) while doing my own narrative journey mapping.

All the while I was inspired by the legendary Queen surfers and the matriarchal heritage of the island – there’s a softness to the culture as well as the seasons that allows for deep rest.

I returned to Sausalito with the feeling of flying from paradise to paradise. Rocking gently on my boat, looking up at the big lemony moon and seeing the flyer pinned on the boat community notice board inviting us all to share a Harvest Moon pot luck, I’m glad to be home.

Jane Sloane
San Francisco

 

Letter From Laos and Larrakia Country

Jane Sloane - © Whitney Legge - The Asia Foundation
© Whitney Legge – The Asia Foundation

I recently travelled to Laos to join The Asia Foundation’s country representative there, Nancy Kim, to visit local women artisans and some of the other work supported by the foundation. My colleague and filmmaker, Whitney, accompanied me to capture the stories and voices of the women we visited.

When we arrived in the villages near Savannakhet, the women brought out reams of exquisitely textured fabrics that had been created by women in their villages. We were supporting some of these women to participate in the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market this year. We heard from these artisans that this opportunity would allow them to keep their daughters in school this year, and that increased economic security would likely provide greater protection from trafficking.

If sales and buyer connections went well, the flow on benefits would provide more work opportunities for young women from their villages, so that they are not forced to go to Thailand to do low-wage work. This opportunity would then contribute to the renaissance of artisan power in Laos and their outreach to the world.

Two of the women in the villages we visited in Laos shared their stories.

This is Tui’s story.

© Whitney Legge – The Asia Foundation

Our village has continued the same tradition for generations…we know how to do natural coloring of fabric as it’s our tradition. In the past, our village’s main job was rice farming. But during the dry season, women weaved, made blankets and mattresses for families, and took care of children.

I started weaving in 2000 and organized our weaving group. Everyone did their own weaving – if that person had finished two, I bought two, if another had five, then I bought five.

Some local community people knew how to produce weavings, but they did not have a market to sell their products and had no idea how to sell. Therefore, I buy their products at a reasonable price, and then find markets to sell. Then women have work to do and increase their income to support families.

The way of our practice is, everyone has different knowledges. I give everyone chances, if they had, I bought, we discussed and agreed.  I’m also proud to see them have work to do and gain some income. I can sell our products because the price is reasonable. We really focus on quality. With customers, we always tell them that our products are made with real natural color.  

Our community has changed (since I started weaving). Many women can earn income, women are stronger and have equal rights to men because women can earn money almost every day.  It was different in the past.  After finishing rice farming, women took care of children and waited to use money given by husbands. Today, women are stronger, a woman can earn money and that makes me proud to see women and our community gain more income.

In the past, men were always presented in the front of families while women were always behind. Now, family in our village has been reorganized. In some families, men support their wives to produce materials, they could make color for example, they become wife’s assistants and they are also proud of their wives.  And our women get more respect.

I buy almost all products from local people. Like what you saw over there.  Then I must find markets to buy those products. I usually send to market every three days. Some orders 50 and some orders 100 pieces; and some may order up to 200 pieces. I buy every day from the weavers, by this person and that person, depending on if they have products. I sometimes owed them because market did not pay me and I had no money to pay; but not more than one or two days so I had to inform them that tomorrow they could come to get money, and they came back.

I am so proud that our products will be known by the world and reach America. That will give us income and other benefits.  I would also like to encourage some of our young people working in Thailand to come back and work in our community when we are strong enough. I hope young women will return to the community to work here, produce traditional materials, making nature colors, planting and doing anything here. Many young women have left our village to work in Thailand at low pay.

My expectation is that in 10 years I would like to see the change of women and they have better livelihoods. I will be proud to see that happened and my family business will increase too in the future.

One of the other women we met, Lae, also shared her story.

© Whitney Legge - The Asia Foundation
© Whitney Legge – The Asia Foundation

I’m proud to be able to do weaving. In the past, my parents taught me how to do weaving and I like doing it.

I started weaving in 2000 when I was about 16.  I also helped my parents doing farming as it was the only job in the community. I finished only secondary grade 2 at school. When I saw my mother gained income through weaving I followed her as her assistant. After a while my mother stopped working, so I  continued working. I started looking for customers until my village organized the weaving group. I applied, and have worked together with Mrs. Tui doing weaving and my own design.

There are about 10 women the same age as me that weave. Some of them also continue study. But most of them are just weaving. Some of them who left school went to work in Thailand in a factory.

If there are more markets, it would be good for us and it will help our community to have more work and people will have more income to support their family. I’m very happy and proud to have a chance to go to Santa Fe. Of course, I have a lot of hopes.  I expect to have more customers and more orders of our product; that would help to develop our village. I would like to thank Facebook and WhatsApp as they make me fast in trade and communication, comfortable and easy in conversation. When buyers need products, they can send the order. It’s easy and I’m happy.

My husband is happy with me. I married him in 1999. Since we married, he never disagreed that I work on weaving and it helps to increase family income, although my husband does not help me because we have divided our tasks: husband does farming and raise the cows, and I do weaving. But we discuss and support each other.

I hope that in the future, our work will be bigger. I expect we can sell more, especially through export.  I would like to do better than this and to have more customers.  But we have come a long way. When I started with my mother, we had no technology. It was very difficult for communication and transportation. If we needed something, we used letters and or communicated through public transportation like bus. The bus could service us only once per week, but some work requested was urgent.  Then we used radio to help communicate. Travel was also very difficult because of the quality of the roads. if it rained, we had to take tractor to help transport us to the main road to catch the bus. It was very difficult at that time, however, it’s comfortable now.

© Whitney Legge – The Asia Foundation

While in Laos, we also visited the Laos Women’s Shelter, led by visionary director, Madame Virith Khattignavong. The Asia Foundation was instrumental in helping to create the shelter and supporting its early work. The shelter is located on a large tract of land, which was provided by the government on long-term lease, surrounded by gardens and market produce. The shelter takes in girls and young women who have been affected by violence, and it provides them with access to formal education and apprenticeships in hairdressing, hospitality, textiles, and horticulture.

The girls and young women go to school each day and return to the shelter as their home and community. For those young women who want to gain livelihood skills, they can learn these skills within the shelter grounds. The shelter has also have developed a network of employers who employ the girls and women who have completed their studies or apprenticeships. This integrated approach ensures that there are sustainable livelihood opportunities for girls and young women who arrive at the shelter, providing increased freedom from violence and pathways to prosperity. Others can access scholarships and continue their study at college or university.

@ Whitney Legge – The Asia Foundation

The grounds themselves are lush and spacious and we visit a community garden planted out with vegetables and fruit and herbs that are abundant and inviting.  The gardens are well tended and provide an important outlet for the girls and young women to learn about nutrition while also testing their skills as cooks and horticulturalists.

I listen to some of the young women talking and laughing, then we visit one of the training areas where it is very quiet as these women concentrate on their work, and from time to time glance over at us. I’m as curious as the young women, and I’m struck by the quality of their work and their composure.

What’s essential in this work is supporting girls and women to be safe and free from violence and connecting them to pathways to education and employment so that they have the economic security to pursue their potential and passions. I think back to the women artisans we met and to the real joy they expressed in their art and work.

While in Laos, I also had time to discuss with Nancy the potential of creating an artisan market in Asia, drawing on the success of the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market that has been going for 14 years and which attracts more than 20,000 buyers each year. What if we could create the opportunity for a similar market in Asia that would provide women artisans in Asia the opportunity to be connected to more buyers and markets, and to build year-round sustainability of their products? That is some of what we’re exploring at present in our discussions with buyers and artisans.

Several of my colleagues traveled to Santa Fe to join the women artisans from Laos, Bangladesh and Timor Leste whom we’d funded to be able to participate in this market. My colleague, Whitney, was also there to capture on film the journey these women had made and their experience of the market and the outcomes for these artisans.

I couldn’t be there as I was flying to London to take up a non-residential Atlantic Fellowship with the Inequalities Institute at London School of Economics. This fellowship is one of several across the globe funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies and is designed to support a corp of global practitioners working to address inequality in its many forms over a 20-year period. I’ll be sharing more about this experience in future blogs and this program inception was a powerful start to develop our thinking and action in relation to the inequalities we were focused on through our own work, for me most especially gender equality.

While I was in London I went to the Tate Modern and picked up one of the books written by Louise Bourgeois – one of the most provocative, creative and arresting sculptors and textile artists of this century. It was Bourgeois who said “Art is restoration: the idea is to repair the damages that are inflicted in life, to make something that is fragmented – which is what fear and anxiety do to a person – into something whole.”

She also said “I am not what I am, I am what I do with my hands…” This resonated with me since it had been a few months since I’d taken time to draw, paint and dance. It was a reminder of not subsuming work and other commitments to the creative impulse to express and explore. There’s beauty and fire in taking up that invitation to enter another dimension by dancing, sculpting, painting, writing, filming and other creative forms.

After two weeks in London I was finally back on my boat. What joy!

A day later we held an event and pop-up shop in San Francisco for the artisan entrepreneurs who had traveled from Bangladesh, Laos and Timor Leste to Santa Fe so that we could welcome them to the Bay Area before they returned to their respective countries.

The color and energy these women brought with them through their textiles was contagious. The event we hosted was a riot of color and activity as guests exclaimed over the quality of the textiles and tapestries, and then went into a buying frenzy to purchase some of the gorgeous garments and crafts the artisans had for sale.

A year ago, this was just a dream. To find ways to get some women to the Santa Fe event, to explore a sister event in Asia and find donors to help make this a reality. Now it feels like we’re on our way.

On the other side of the world, in Darwin, Australia, enroute from Timor Leste to Sydney via Darwin, I recently interviewed a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women textile artists about their own work and art for an article in AQ: Australian Quarterly magazine.  One of my friends, and a great Australian leader, Lenore Dembski, who created the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s fund (ATSI women’s fund) brought these women together at Paperbark Woman, her Darwin based outlet to showcase these textiles.

June Mills holding one of her hand designed and pained skirts
June Mills @ Paperbark Woman

One of the women, June Mills, is a musician and a member of the famed Mills Sisters group, as well as a gifted artist.Here’s what she said, as an excerpt from the interview when I asked her to share more about what painting her dreaming on clothing and creating other art meant to her:

June: It’s cultural maintenance, cultural knowledge. You know, we’re in a dominant culture, which suppresses our cultural business, so there was a definite need for me to make clothing that is representative of our culture, our tribal people.

That skirt of mine that I made, that you fell in love with, is the major Dreaming for the Larrakia people… And you’ll see the sea eagle, another major Dreaming. The sea eagle flying over Casuarina Beach. So that, to me — calling up our Dreaming — is giving our children strength in the knowledge of whom they are, their identity… With each generation, there’s less and less cultural knowledge and all being passed on. And so we really have to fight against that, push against that. Assimilation and integration is still going on in this country … to make us like every other Joe Blow. Well, no, we’re not. We are people of the land and that’s what my art is about.

Jane [interviewer]: June, do you see a connection between your music and your art?

June: Well, my friends here are saying it’s all about making yourself happy. I was thinking about [how] for a long time with my sisters we just sang [as the Mills Sisters] what everyone else wanted us to sing… But then, at some point, I started to make my own music that had much more cultural relevance to me… My music is very much a mixture of cultural business, healing business and fun business… One of the things I did as healing business was I wrote a song for my grandmother who was taken away from her country when she was only three years old and taken to Warrnambool to be a slave there — until she was too old and then she was sent back to the territory. But there was no record of where she came from, or of her family — nothing.

Miraculously, she found her way back to country because she remembered one word. And that word was her birth name, Kilngaree. She had her name changed five times and yet she remembered her birth name. She sung her way back here before she died… So I wrote that song, ’Sweet Child of Mine’, which has in it the line, ‘remember your name’. But that name… Kilngaree, means ‘a stream system’ in Larrakia, and so Kilngaree took my nanna right back to her birthplace. She had to ask around and people knew the language and said, ‘This way’. I finally found my own voice and I wouldn’t even say that it’s fully developed today.

The women speak about their need for support systems for these textile artists. Ideally an ATSI textile artist business incubator and manufacturing cooperative for women sewers and designers who can share facilities and lay out their work, and then a pop-up incubator in more rural and remote communities.

Another Aboriginal designer, Colleen Tighe-Johnson, whom I also interviewed for Australian Quarterly has had invitations to New York Fashion Week and Cannes International Film Festival.  In the article she said, “Our people are hurting; our people are dying. They need the connection to community and economic opportunity that will give them hope and focus.”

Colleen also dreams of creating a similar cooperative in Redfern in Sydney to provide pathways to urban Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to be supported in developing their skills, designs and access to markets.

My own struggle and question, from the time I spend with the women in Laos and the time spent with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women artists, is how to connect these women to the funds and power they need to transform their lives.

Individual and institutional donors have so much money. The world is awash with money.  And yet so much of it bypasses those who have demonstrated time and time again the potency of their own work and potential to catalyze change in their countries and communities. As donors seek to aggregate their funding to reduce administrative costs, those at the frontline of change within their communities get left out.

The renewed focus and fascination with innovation frequently rewards those who are already well placed and positioned to receive the funding, further widening the divide with those on the margins.

We need a genuine commitment to funding grass roots groups, especially those led by women, and to ensuring they are included in policy forums and key places of influence – where their work on the ground can influence policies and laws and ensure an enabling environment for their work and creativity.

Funding these groups is important and yet inadequate if this funding isn’t combined with a commitment to support women leaders to assume power and influence in policy and legislative decision making and arenas. Without paying attention to the policy and legal factors that create an enabling environment as well as the social norms that sustain inequality, there’s a danger of ‘spinning wheels’ – i.e. getting the funds to groups without addressing the systemic and attitudinal factors that inhibit transformation.

A woman is the full circle. Within her is the power to create, nurture and transform.”

Diane Mariechild

 

Back in Sausalito there’s a buttery yellow moon slung low over the water. I’m back again! So now, full circle, I return to the flowing tide of my boat life to draw from the energy and power of nature’s rhythms, and the sweet beauty of home.

Jane Sloane
Sausalito

Letter From Myanmar

photo by Whitney LeggeMy colleague, Whitney, and I are walking up seemingly hundreds of steps to the 2,600-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda. This is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar, as it’s adorned with 27 metric tons of gold leaf, along with thousands of diamonds and other gems, and is believed to enshrine eight hairs of the Gautama Buddha as well as relics of three former buddhas.

At the bottom of the stairs to the pagoda I collect from a woman at a street stall an armful of gorgeously scented roses and then at the top of the stairs I’m stopped by a guard who places a wrap-around sarong on my dress to cover the bare flesh of my legs. Then suddenly we’re in the pagoda in the twilight of the night and the warm glow of lit candles and chanting.

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar

People come up and touch our faces, want to  practice their English and snap selfies with us. Monks are walking in their robes, people are making offerings, some are gazing skyward to the top of the stupa. There’s grace and beauty all around and I feel great lightness being here. I’m reminded of the words of Aldous Huxley in his book, Island

 

‘Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly.
Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply.
Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.’

photo by Whitney LeggeThe next morning our meetings begin. We meet our colleague, Mi Ki who has organized our meetings and has just a deep feeling for the country and people. Mi Ki is such a gorgeous presence – and her interpreting skills and insights prove invaluable for us.

She escorts us to a meeting with a former parliamentarian from Yangon who was in office for five years until 2016. Now this former parliamentarian is training hundreds of women to support them as candidates for political office at local and national levels. “I trained more than 300 women candidates from different backgrounds and 32 won elections. I’m training women candidates from across party spectrum and women are free to join our trainings however many women unable to join due to pressure from families and local leaders.’

We hear from this former political representative that women comprise 14.5% of all elected Members of Parliament and that the real reform needs to come within The National League for Democracy (NLD) as the governing party and the dominant political force. Beyond getting more women elected as candidates, women also need to be better supported in political office. As she says, “women are often pressured not to speak in Parliament and I don’t see much progress. Political parties track how often women speak to media and monitor their social media. Women are increasingly conscious of the gender divide and there’s even a political party called the More Women Party that was founded three years ago but it’s had little traction to date.”

When we meet with an independent researcher focused on women’s political participation in Myanmar, he says that the first past the post electoral system means that the NLD is going to continue to dominate while this system is in place. This means the major reform needs to be in this party, which is extremely top down in structure and governed by a central executive committee. The researcher observes that at the last election the number of women securing political office doubled however this still only means 14% of women in parliament.

photo by Whitney Legge

One of the main reasons for our traveling to Myanmar is to film the Colorful Girls of Burma. We’re also here to extend an invitation to the organization to accept a Lotus Leadership Award at The Asia Foundation’s Gala in San Francisco in October this year.

I was last in Myanmar over four years ago when I first visited the Colorful Girls of Burma. At that time, I met Nant Thazin Min, a Karen woman and community activist who founded the organization in 2008 with several teenage girls in her neighborhood. While giving the girls free English lessons, Thazin learnt of their struggles at home, in school, in their communities including the violence they experienced, pressure to drop out of school, lack of recognition of their talents, harsh restrictions on their movement and associations.

Colorful Girls evolved as a safe forum for girls to share their personal experiences in an environment where they can build their self-esteem and confidence. Today the organization provides leadership programs for girls ages 13-18 to help them to be strong advocates to end violence and human trafficking and for girls to tap their creativity and leadership potential. The girls chose the name Colorful Girls to reflect the diverse and multi-ethnic makeup of the organization.

photo by Whitney LeggeWhitney, Mi Ki, and I climb the stairs to offices. The door opens to a riot of color, laughter and activity. Girls, mothers, other adults all working on various projects and planning activities. These girls belong to an active network of girls where information, ideas, support and action is abundant.

This is informed by a belief that bringing girls to the fore will raise the overall status of girls and women in communities and a society where military men, businessmen and monks currently hold most decision-making power. As the only organization dedicated exclusively to girls, the organization also works with community leaders and NGO’s to support girls’ leadership and personal growth.

Several thousand girls have undertaken leadership training since the group began and the plan is to take the training nation-wide in the time ahead. We film an interview with Ma Thazin and after that, Whitney gets permission to accompany one of the girls, full of energy and spunk, home to her village.

photo by Whitney LeggeThen Mi Ki and I head out to visit Phan Tee Eain, which means Creative Home in English. The group was established 2009 and in 2010 it began observation and research on women’s political participation and noted the low levels of participation by women. In 2012 it secured funding for a Women Lead program to undertake training with political parties to increase women’s political participation. The women in the group sought to address a political culture that embeds men as leaders and to build on the slight progress re women being given a place in political parties. It’s challenging work since the overwhelming population have more trust in men than in women, especially in rural areas.

One of the members from Phan Tee Eain shares with us, “It’s particularly difficult to change mindset of ethnic women – we must go through the men to influence the women,” says one of the members. When I ask what the group most needs, they respond “We need more core funding as most funding is project based and it’s difficult to sustain staff. We want to focus on three areas: women’s political participation; women, peace and security; women’s leadership and voice.”

photo by Whitney LeggeWe shift focus from women working to get more women into political office to spend time with a Burmese labor rights activist who has spent her life working for justice. This woman invites us into her home where we sit with her to hear her story. Near to me is a photo of two people – a man with a clear-eyed gaze and a very beautiful woman staring out at the camera. These are her revolutionary parents and this is her story.

“We had a lot of women leaders before the British came. My mother died of an abortion when I was t Ki? hree years’ old. My father brought me up to read and then discuss what I had read. Then he encouraged me to join debates with his friends to sharpen her debating skills. My father began using arts and advocacy in Mandalay and then in 1974 my father’s friends were captured by Burmese police and sentenced to life in Cocos Islands. So, my father told friends he was taking me on a vacation and we escaped to Yangon.

“We continued to read political books and formed strong political networks until my father was arrested and then badly tortured and beaten in prison because of participating in social movement action- going to villages, distributing pamphlets and encouraging political action. In 1989 I was captured by police and sentenced to three years’ jail. It was here that I met with many women politicians, with many focusing on labor issues. I was then in and out of jail for many years and my father died while I was in jail.

“Women’s participation started again with CEDAW (The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women) however there’s a level of passivity among women that we’re trying to address. We’re focused on advocating for women’s human rights including ending violence against women, including ending forced labor and ending trafficking. This includes trafficking of children’s body organs which is increasing. Women are also playing a role in the trafficking of other women – while in jail met a woman who had trafficked more than 100 women. She was trafficked herself and knew the business so well that she became a trafficker.”

“There were protests by garment workers in 2013 against violence and forced labor. My organization helped get more than 2,000 women workers back to Myanmar from countries such as Jordan and then committed to help women workers in other countries. This included attending key conferences on labor law and legal rights. It’s important for women to know about CEDAW and to work with labor unions and their members re women’s rights, children’s rights and association law.

“I’ve followed my father’s political path of advocacy and activism. It all began with him teaching me how to read, and how to think for myself.”

While we’re having tea in a gorgeous tea ceremony, I keep looking at the photo of her parents, so alive to the possibilities in life and to the extraordinary beauty of her mother. I want her mother’s vivid story to be told and to be carried on the dream of her parents’ vision for the country and their own life before it ended prematurely due to not getting the right medical support and attention in time.

photo by Whitney LeggeLate afternoon, heading back to my hotel, we pass the Shwedagon Pagoda and I watch as people stream up the steps. Golden light infuses people and place as I watch transfixed.

Satish Kumar, editor of one of my favorite magazines, Resurgence, affirms the precious role of sacred spaces when he says “We have to recognize the magnetic value of a particular space and to approach the ultimate through the intimate.”

The next morning Whitney and I depart Myanmar and fly into Bangkok. We skid across the airport to find our small plane to Laos. A new journey is about to begin.

Jane Sloane
Myanmar

There must be, not a balance of power, but a community of power; not organized rivalries, but an organized common peace.
President Josiah Edward “Jed” Bartlet quoting Woodrow Wilson in the West Wing

All photos by Whitney Legge ( except the Shwedagon Pagoda photo)