Letter from San Francisco #3

Sutter St San FranciscoIt’s just beginning to be light when I catch the bus from Sausalito into San Francisco for work and yet I always take a seat on the bay side of the bus so that I can drink in the view of the Golden Gate Bridge and of the boats on the water. There’s an unspoken rule of quiet on the bus and the silence is velvety as we ease into the city.

Walking along Sutter Street to my office I often see a woman in a wheelchair covered by a blanket, her wheelchair parked in the shelter of a shop entrance.  Later one day I saw this woman greeting customers as they emerged from a convenience store and so I gave her some money and asked her about her story.

“I’m Judy. My husband and I came here from Winwood (Odessa, Texas) as we heard about a job here but it fell through and now we don’t have enough money to get back. We don’t have enough warm clothes or food and we need to save up enough to try and get back home.  I’m here and my husband sleeps in another shop entrance when he can.”

Judy’s story is far from rare, as Rose Aguilar noted in an article she wrote for The Nation called ‘Old, Female and Homeless’ where an increasing number of women are sleeping rough due to the lack of jobs and access to services to support them. Aguilar writes:

 “Every homeless advocate and shelter monitor I spoke with told me that the older homeless population in San Francisco is exploding. The problem is bound to get worse as the price of housing reaches new heights. San Francisco is the most expensive city in the country for renters, according to a March 2012 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Small studio apartments are going for as much as $2,000 a month, which is well beyond the reach of many people’s salary”.

And it’s not just San Francisco. The cost of living in most major metropolitan areas is on the rise, while wages are down. According to the latest numbers from Hearth, an organization working to end elder homelessness, the country had 40,750 homeless people 62 or older in 2012. As the nation’s population ages, that number is expected to more than double by 2050.’

Tavis Smiley, one of the most astute and admired talk show hosts in the United States, recently moderated a panel of opinion-makers focusing on the crippling issue of poverty in America in a four part PBS series.  In introducing the series, Smiley shared the fact that last year in Washington, the top 5% made more than $500,000 while the bottom 20% made less than $9,500, constituting a 54:1 ratio.  Since 1989 poverty in 49 of the 50 states has increased. Mississippi continues to rank as the worst state in the nation when it comes to poverty.

Watch ‘Vision for a New America’ panel discussion – Part 1 on PBS. See more from Tavis Smiley.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs, Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and a member of the panel convened by Smiley, pointed out that “politics has neglected the poor. The United States has by far the most poverty of any of the high-income countries, taken as a share of the population. We have the highest inequality; we have the most entrenched underclass. We have had the biggest increases of inequality by far and we’ve had the least political response of any high-income country.”

Professor Sachs went on to say, “When I come back from a trip abroad…I’m coming back to a rickety infrastructure in this country, where you look at our airports and our roads, the highways you travel. They’re 50 years old, because we’re not reinvesting in this country right now…Of course the poor are the most urgent. They’re the ones clinging, trying to hold on. We’re not taking care of that. But when we have a disaster like Hurricane Sandy that hit the whole East Coast, people have been warning for years with the rising sea levels, with the more intense storms, with the climate change, we have to get our infrastructure right. The idea, starting around 1981, was to starve the beast, so-called. Just get the size of government down. What we’re doing is incapacitating our ability to face the deep problems that we have in this country. One of them is an underclass that on its own cannot find a way out and no longer has any kind of helping hand.”

In New York, many people are still living without heat and other services as a result of Hurricane Sandy and some have even died. Those who are just “clinging, trying to hold on” have lost any hope and faith that government and society are looking out for them. The continual reference by politicians and parliamentarians to the middle class being the great force and strength of society does nothing to give hope to those who remain in deep poverty and who see a bleak future ahead.

That’s why Tavis Smiley’s call for a White House Conference on US poverty is important in terms of getting commitments and action on addressing poverty now.

Today my friend next door is having a farewell as she and her husband can’t afford to live in America anymore with a new baby. Their financial situation shows that it wouldn’t be possible for them to have quality time with their baby on their reduced income, or to afford childcare services.  So they’re moving to Europe where her husband’s family will help and where they will receive health care and other forms of government support from the moment they touch down in Germany, where her husband was born.  She’s deeply worried about the level of disorientation and learning a new language as well as being in a place she doesn’t consider home.

Of course women in so many countries are at the front line of dislocation, movement and migration for both economic and political reasons.  Whatever issues women are facing in America are magnified and accelerated for women in many developing countries.  I recently interviewed Ma Khin Mar Mar Kyi who was born in Burma and who found herself moving from country to country for years as a result of the political situation in her country.  And so here is her story:

Ma Khin Mar Mar Ky & Jane Sloane
Ma Khin Mar Mar Ky & Jane Sloane

“I grew up in Rangoon where I was born into a middle class family and I lived there until I left in 1990.  I was radicalized as a student when I was studying education. I supported Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and worked with the National League for Democracy. The 8 August 1988 military response to the people’s protest for democracy movement forced me to leave during the crackdown.  After I was arrested, interrogated, jailed and then taken to a military camp, I realized it was no longer possible for me to stay in Burma even though I was scared and reluctant to leave alone. After a few times of being arrested and interrogated, I knew that I would be re-arrested on any pretext and so I had to leave. I just had to go.

I didn’t believe in armed struggle and yet I could understand why some people felt it was the only way. Our peaceful expressions of our wish for democracy were met with devastating and sustained acts of violence.  People were frustrated and appalled by the cruelty of the military crackdown.  I went to Thailand where I worked as a teacher. It led to work on a program for street children to help them to get an education.  It was there that I became aware of the trafficking issue. So I started talking to girls and grass roots women’s organizations.  From all that I heard, I felt it was so important to bring attention to this issue and so I created a campaign and an organization called Fight Against Trafficking and Exploitation (FATE) in 1992 to advocate for girls and young women to be protected from sex trafficking.  At the time, this issue was pretty invisible and there were no laws in place to protect girls and women being trafficked. Ensuring that these laws existed, and that they were enforced, was the only way to stop this happening.   Everyone seemed in a state of denial about trafficking and it was a hard and very lonely struggle.

Furthermore, I felt acutely the trauma of being a woman without a home, without money and without power. And of course I was so intimately aware of the fact that this is what the majority of women in the world experience.  It was a life changing experience for me. During my childhood and my teenage years I didn’t know what struggle was about – my parents were Oxford educated and I had a comfortable childhood.

I felt torn apart seeing what was happening to these girls and not being able to help them.  I was also scared that I would experience the same fate. This exposure, and the fact that many of these girls and women were sent across the border, led me to work with displaced people on the Cambodian-Thai border. I worked as a teacher trainer in these displaced persons camps.  However, my strong will to work with, and for, Burmese women and their human rights led me to return to the Thai-Burma border. I later noticed near the Thai-Burma border how complicit many of the police were in trafficking. As I became better known to some of these police, I was targeted and I didn’t feel it was safe to stay where I was.  I witnessed serious corruption in Thailand and the police were aware of what I’d witnessed.

I felt overwhelmed and yet I knew it was an important issue that needed to be addressed. I wanted to help girls and women being trafficked but I felt helpless and powerless.  I wanted to help women establish programs designed to increase their economic security and to ensure their personal safety but I did not know how to get this support. So I decided to work and save money to set up the program. I began to working in a pre-school and, although I worked hard, I still managed to save little.   I knew that if I couldn’t help myself then I couldn’t help others.  I had to save myself in order to save others.  So I decided to leave Thailand and apply to Australia as a political refugee in Laos.

It took two years of waiting for my visa and over that time it was becoming harder and harder to survive on the streets. The US Embassy said it would accept me but I knew it would be harder for me to secure education and social security due to the cost of education. I went to the Canadian Embassy and they gave me a ‘Letter of Protection’ that said I was under the protection of the embassy for any encounters I had with the Thai police.

Ma Khin Mar Mar Kyi;By the time I received confirmation of my Australian visa after two year, I was somewhat conflicted. The realization of  ‘I am going alone to a new country where I know no-one and have no idea what my future holds’ was overwhelming.  The Australian Embassy was very good – they had a staff person come to the airport with me.  “Please look after Mar Mar,” the embassy official said to the flight attendant because I was so emotional.  She was great.  I flew in to Western Australia and had to find my own accommodation that night before I reported to Centrelink the next day to receive money and support.  I arrived in July, in winter, and had no warm clothes or bedding and no idea where to find them.  Everything was new and hard.

I had to start my life anew.   I worked hard. Slowly I began to save money and sent some back to women groups at the Thai-Burma border. I did this for five years and then I decided that if I wanted to help other women to get educated then I needed to get educated myself.   At that time I didn’t even know how to use a computer but once I began to use it new worlds opened up for me. Oh it made me so happy. It was heaven!  It was so liberating!

I went to study at the Australian National University in Canberra.  I did a Graduate Diploma and then a Masters in Asian Studies.  And I submitted a PhD in Social Anthropology while also working as an advocate to end gender based violence in Burma.  I also produced a documentary film called Dreams of Dutiful Daughters, which was very well received. Then I established a street children program and support for an orphanage as well as women’s income generation groups inside Burma and on the Thai-Burma border.

My dissertation topic is ‘In pursuit of power: militarization impact on poverty, gender based violence.’   When I speak in Burma about gender based violence, people just think I mean rape.  No, I mean the myriad of ways that women are violated every day – such as being sexually harassed on the buses when they go home from work or being told that they are needed in the home not at the negotiating table.

I’m now, at this point in my life, so much better equipped to help other women in Burma to secure their human rights. I’m passionate professional and activist academic. I was born in Burma and trained as a Social Anthropologist at Australian National University, one of the world’s best universities. Now I have a voice and I can realize my potential.  I took my chances and now I have a chance to help others. I know that if I help them then they will help others. I know what they are experiencing; I know what it is like to be a woman in the struggle.”

 I hugged Ma Mar and thank her for the truth and power of her story, and of her courage that has led her to this point in her life.

And so, here in the US, I hope that the Obama administration does take up Tavis Smiley’s call for a White House Conference on US Poverty. I hope too that women’s representation at that gathering reflects both the increasing feminization of poverty and also the fact that women know best the kind of solutions that will work for them, and that will have a flow on positive impact on their families and communities.

I say this being mindful of Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times report (Jan 27th) from the World Economic Forum at Davos where women comprised only 17% of the delegates. I hope that the commitments resulting from this conference recognize the interconnectivity between poverty in America and poverty in other countries.

The solutions agreed upon need to be inclusive rather than exclusive. If the solutions ignore the impact of dislocation, migration and movements in other parts of the world on this country then the gains will be short-lived rather than contributing to the transformation of society.

Human rights will be a powerful force for the transformation of reality when they are not simply understood as externally defined norms of behavior but are lived as the spontaneous manifestation of internalized values.
Daisaku Ikeda

Jane Sloane – San Francisco

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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