Saturday December 16th 2017

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Girls say, We want to change things in Burma

Emerging Leaders’ School 2012 opens

Resplendent in their ethnic outfits, and chattering excitedly, the 16 girls from various ethnic nationalities across Burma looked like excited friends at a gathering. But the banner strung proudly across the neat temporary classroom declares they were at the opening ceremony of the Emerging Leaders’ School, and when asked why they wanted to enroll in it, the reply was invariably, “I want to change the political system in Burma”.

Emerging Leaders' School 2012

The school, a six-month study program by Women’s League of Burma (WLB), launched this year on 7 September. Started in 2008, the annual program aims to develop the skills and confidence of young women, to enable them to engage in political and civic society activities.

It is hoped the participants will ultimately play a bigger role in reforms, and buck the trend for Burma where female leadership figures are few and far in between. The problem is compounded by the patriarchal cultures of most of the ethnic groups, especially Chin, Kachin, Rakhaing, Shan and Mon.

But WLB need not worry about the participants’ priorities. When asked about her favourite past-time, Seng Pan Aung, 22 years old, replied she liked reading political books by U Win Naing.

Her beaming face, and those of others, had no sign of the struggles she went through to get to be in the room that night. Participants are selected from WLB member organizations, non-member organizations and women from political parties in issues such as gender and politics, human rights and democracy. Not only did the participants have to compete with other applicants to qualify for the school, many are actually refugees or undocumented migrants who had to face up to their own fears and familial objections before they could make this journey.

Eighteen-year-old Nem Nei Them laughed as she recounted how scared she had been leaving her village near the India-Burma border, as this is the first time she has left home. With hair bound tightly in two plaits by multiple colorful rubber bands, she admitted with a grin that it took some persuasion by her older sister before her parents allowed her to make this trip.

When asked what she wants to change back home, she said frankly, “There are many things I want to change.”

“For instance, in my culture, if a family has a son and a daughter, the son will be allowed to go to school, but not the daughter.”

Girl working at a food stall, Burma

This has translated into unequal literacy rates across the country where women and girls are more likely to be illiterate than men and boys.

The participants had their first shot at public speaking that night as they presented themselves to the audience members, after inspiring speeches by long-time activist and Kachin Women’s Association(Thailand) Coordinator Moon Nay Li and English-language teacher Emma Sheehy.

But in between solemn reflections on Burma’s ongoing changes and future, those who attended the ceremony found time for catching-up and a good dinner.

Caught conversing excitedly with two Rakhaing Women’s Union (RWU) members, former RWU General Secretary and current WLB Joint General Secretary I Saw San Nyreim Thu smiled as she expressed her delight at seeing RWU members in this year’s batch. In a soft but firm voice, she said, “I hope for them to be leaders of RWU in future, as well of Rakhaing Nation.”

That the experienced activists and teachers should harbor such high hopes for the young participants comes as no surprise, for the girls were selected out of dozens of hopefuls, and previous participants have gone on to take up key roles back in their member organizations. Some even returned to Burma to conduct the very same training they had received.

Emerging Leaders’ School 2012 ends in February 2013.