This article originally appeared on VICE Impact.
Wai Wai Nu was arrested when she was 18-years-old and spent the next seven years in prison, sleeping on the floor of a crowded cell in Myanmar's notorious Insein Prison. Her father, an opposition MP, had been charged with political offenses, and the Burmese military arrested him — along with his entire family.
In 2012, at the age of 25, Wai Wai Nu was released and stepped out more determined than ever to advocate for women in Myanmar, including Rohingya women, like her. A mission, more critical today than ever before.
The plight of the Rohingya people of Myanmar (Burma) has been equated to a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing by the UN Human Rights Council. Persecuted for years as a minority-Muslim population in a majority-Buddhist country, Burma’s military, escalated its use of violence against the Rohingya people in late August 2017 in northern Rakhine State. In less than six months, thousands of people have been killed, hundreds of villages destroyed, and more than 650,000 Rohingya people have fled to neighboring Bangladesh.
Fighting for them is Wai Wai Nu. VICE Impact spoke to her about her advocacy work and how the energy of the #MeToo movement can be channelled to help support Rohingya women, and bring persecutors to justice.
VICE Impact: How did your time inside Yangon’s Insein Prison inspire your advocacy work?
Wai Wai Nu: I was in a cell with more than a hundred women and had a chance to speak to many, many women from different backgrounds. That’s when I started to realize how hard life in Myanmar was for women.
Education is poor, unemployment is high, and society itself is closed, and when husbands don’t have income, women have to struggle to feed and take care of their family, and that’s how many ended up being in prison for such small crimes, like gambling.
Some also ended up in prison because they were trafficking drugs, or in prostitution. When I spoke to these women it was again the same story. They had to survive and had to find money and ended up in prison. And when they went out they didn't have any support from the government, or any rehabilitation programme and ended up back in prison again and again. A lot of women just died in the prison, especially those who had worked in prostitution. At the time there was no access to drugs to treat HIV/AIDS and I saw many, many women die in the prison.
It was the same story for political prisoners. They were being imprisoned, most of the time without a fair trial, just like me. They just put us in jail after a closed trial.
I talked to many young women and realised many didn't have goals. I had a goal and thought I was lucky to have one because it made me strong. I just thought I want to do something when I come out of prison. I wanted to make sure that young women had goals in their lives so that they had a better chance to pursue a better life.
"We really need to help those that speak out recover so they can reintegrate into society."
In 2015 you launched the #MyFriend campaign, to showcase love and tolerance among Myanmar’s diverse communities through social media. Why was this campaign important? What are you aiming to accomplish with it?
With the #MyFriend campaign we wanted to challenge the anti-Muslim and anti-diversity sentiments that had dominated for years. We wanted to counter this by using positive narratives, which were already there in our society and in our culture. Growing in the city, everyone had friends or relations with people from diverse communities.
But nationalists groups here say that we cannot live with Muslims or other people and ban such and such but we still have relationships with each other and we wanted to show it and celebrate it and honour it and show evidence that diversity isn't a problem.
You have been tirelessly working to defend women in Myanmar. Can you tell us more about the difficulties that Rohingya women are facing today and what you think should be done about it?
The form of sexual violence women face here is actually similar to sexual violence women face in all conflict areas. I remember when I was young, the Shan Women's Action Network published a report called License to Rape (2002), [which details 173 incidents of rape and other forms of sexual violence, involving 625 girls and women, committed by Burmese army troops in Shan State, mostly between 1996 and 2001]. It details the same violence and impunity that we are facing today. The difference today is that it’s on a much larger and systemic scale.
The individual stories are horrifying but there isn't any ongoing justice and it’s so important that these women get justice.
Talking about justice, you are the director of the Women’s Peace Network Arakan and the co-founder of Justice for Women. What work are you doing to help ensure these women get justice?
The Women’s Peace Network Arakan are providing training, specifically for example women’s rights training and we are also doing campaigns on violence against women to ensure policy change. Apart from that, we empower youth through peace-building activities, and conversation programmes.
Justice for Women has provided legal justice education for women on sexual violence and many trainings. Today it also provides free legal online consultations for women.
How can the #MeToo movement be harnessed to help bring justice to Rohingya women?
Sexual violence in Myanmar is quite a common thing, and that’s aside from the systemic violence against Rohingya women. For example, sexual harassment in public spaces is quite common. It’s common in Myanmar and it’s something we have to work on. And for me, the #MeToo campaign is quite significant because it’s important to continue to show solidarity among each other.
But the terrifying thing is the continued impunity of the perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict areas and in non-conflict areas. That has to end.
I think when it comes to war crimes, sexual violence is a crime against humanity, but I think it would get more attention if it did have its own category. Maybe it would discourage perpetrators of sexual violence. And for this to happen, women around the world have to continue showing solidarity by campaigning, raising their voices and volunteering.
How else can we support your advocacy and Rohingya women?
I think media coverage is important because it’s important to shed light on different cases to help raise awareness. But the women who speak out to the press need help, to heal and recover. And it feels this, at times, isn't being prioritised enough.
We really need to help those that speak out recover so they can reintegrate into society.
If you’d like to help support Rohingya women, consider donating to BRAC . Founded in Bangladesh, it is currently ranked the best nongovernmental organization in the world by NGO Advisor. The group, which works with the Rohingya refugee population in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, focuses on health, education and the protection of women and girls. Most of the staff are locals who speak a dialect similar to that of the Rohingya in Rakhine State. They have also trained 800 Rohingya refugees as volunteers.