Displaced by Conflict in Myanmar, Women Leaders Take Charge

The Southeast Asian country's borderlands have been mired in violence since independence. But old norms and structures in displaced communities are changing.

Sep 21 2020, 10:37am

Nearly 250,000 people in Myanmar live in displaced camps or camp-like communities after fleeing conflict and violence, according to the United Nations.

Years of fighting between the military and ethnic armed groups in Rakhine, Shan and Kachin States has fueled an ongoing and overlooked humanitarian crisis, with food, water and shelter shortages.

The situation has gotten worse with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, as hygiene and social distancing are difficult even under normal circumstances.

Conflict zones have been a feature of Myanmar’s landscape for decades, and historic elections in 2015 have brought about little change.

On World Peace Day (Sept. 21) VICE News is publishing a series of photos from global non-profit Oxfam highlighting the work of women leaders who have taken charge in displaced camps across the country.


They are displaying remarkable courage as they strive to help people meet basic needs, challenging gender norms and potentially enabling the broader transformation of women’s rights in the country.

Sayama Zawng Naw, 29, community leader

Sayama Zawng Naw, 29, lives in an IDP camp in Kachin State, Myanmar's northernmost state. Photo credit: Hkun Li/Oxfam

Parts of Kachin and Shan State have for years hosted IDP camps, which proliferated after a ceasefire breakdown between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Indendence Army in 2011.

According to Sayama Zawng Naw, those occupying administrative positions in camps have traditionally been men. But she is helping change that, and wants to inspire others to follow her lead.

“Women can do this too. Being a leader doesn’t mean it’s only you all the time, you have to help others to lead too,” Sayama Zawng Naw, who lives in an IDP camp around the Kachin State capital of Myitkyina, said.

“After me, two other women became leaders in the camp community. One of them was very shy, not confident, she always said, “no, I can’t do it.” I always supported her and told her, “it is not that difficult, if you have difficulty, we can help you, we can support you.”

Nu Nu Thar (pseudonym)

Nar Nar Thu, a pseudonym for a Rohingya woman in an IDP camp in Rakhine State, where the Muslim minority face systemic persecution. Photo: Chris Pelling/Oxfam

Nar Nar Thu lives in a displaced camp for Rohingya and Kaman Muslims in central Rakhine State.

The Rohingya people bore the brunt of intercommunal violence in 2012, and were the target of brutal campaigns of violence in northern Rakhine State in 2016 and 2017.

An estimated 128,000 mostly Rohingya affected by the 2012 violence continue to live in displacement camps near the state capital Sittwe, where they lack freedom of movement and good access to healthcare.

“We face a lot of challenges as women in the camps,” Nar Nar Thu said. “Women are restricted by their husbands from going outside to do community work, and many of them, as a result, don’t know they can be leaders too.”

Nar Nar Thu, a pseudonym for a Rohingya woman in an IDP camp in Rakhine State, where the Muslim minority face systemic persecution. Photo: Chris Pelling/Oxfam

“I try my best to help women and act whenever I can,” Nar Nar Thu said, adding that she has also helped mediate in cases of child marriage, educating parents about the rights of their children.

“I didn’t know I had the power within me. Now my mission is to encourage other women to have the confidence to be leaders. I’m one of the camp management committee leaders. I want to try and create space for women to be elected.”


Bawk Nu Awng, 22, math whiz

Bawk Nu Awng, a 22-year-old math student displaced by conflict. Photo: Hkun Li/Oxfam

For Bawk Nu Awng, math has been both an escape and a way of standing pushing back against stereotypes about displaced people in Kachin State, where she has lived in an IDP camp since 2013.

“The feeling of being able to solve [an equation], this is a good feeling. Math is everywhere, everything is math.  When you go to the market and buy things, that is math.”

“At school, I felt like people looked down on me, because I was displaced. There was a test in physics, where I got 24/25. Many of the students failed, but I got this high mark. After that, the way people treated me changed.”

“I am not the same as others, I am displaced. I have to try two or three times harder than anyone else.”

Bawk Nu Awng, a 22-year-old student, says math helps her stand out from the crowd. Photo: Hkun Li/Oxfam


worldnews, world conflict

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