In the Words of Naw Htoo Paw, Burmese Human Rights Activist


In the Words of Naw Htoo Paw, Burmese Human Rights Activist

May 29, 2008

The cyclone that hit Burma (Myanmar) in early May has only complicated an already appalling humanitarian crisis within the country. With half a million people displaced inside the country due to decades of armed conflict, coupled with an estimated 128,000 dead from the cyclone, Burma needs the world's attention and support now more than ever.

AJWS is currently hosting a speakers' series with Naw Htoo Paw, a human rights activist with Karen Women's Organization (KWO), an AJWS grantee. KWO is AJWS grantee that works with the Karen minority, a persecuted ethnic group in Burma and in Thailand's refugee camps. Htoo Paw is currently traveling across the United States to speak about the reality of life for refugees from Burma. Here, she shares her story.

I grew up in a very little village in a rural area [in Burma/Myanmar]. In my village, we always thought it was normal for women to be raped, normal that villagers are arrested and killed without any reason, for people to do forced labor. We think this way because we've had to live with this situation since my grandparents' generation. So for people in my village, this is normal life. And if you can imagine it, for the people from my area, their experiences are even worse than mine.

In my village, the government does not provide school to anyone. We have only primary school, supported by villagers. But not all children can go to school; in our village, people are very poor, and from seven to eight years old, children work on their farm to help their parents.

I am very lucky, because my mom graduated from high school. Compared to others, she is the most educated person in the village. She made sure that her children got an education. After I finished primary school my mom sent me to a town that was a 4 day walk from my village, so that I could go to high school. I had to stay in the town away from my family for the whole year. When I graduated, I wanted to go to university, but in Burma, the government closes the universities very often, because they are afraid of the students. If you look at our history, students are the ones who lead the democracy movement in Burma. And my parents could not afford to send me to university anymore.

So I returned home. But my parents knew it was not safe for a young woman to stay in the village, because they saw that many young women were being forced to marry military men or go along with the troops and be raped. So my parents decided to send me to the Thai-Burma border. My village had heard about Karen Women's Organization, and that they work for women in refugee camps, so my parents decided to send me to the refugee camps. They hoped that if I joined KWO, I would be safe and maybe continue my education.

So in 2001, I came to the Thai-Burma border and joined KWO. I had the chance to learn many new things. I attended different trainings and learned about human rights, democracy, and other government systems. But [these concepts] were only in books – I never saw them in my life. Even though I knew there were democratic countries in the world, I never experienced it in my own life.

Fortunately, I had the chance to go to New Zealand to do an internship. It was my first time to live in a democracy, and I was happy and surprised to see that people can live peacefully, and don't have to be afraid of being attacked or killed. The government cannot do such terrible things to civilians. I realized that this is a normal life for human beings.

I decided I have to work for the people in Burma to live in democracy. I went back to KWO and traveled back to my village. This time, I wasn't the same person as I was when I had left. I saw the children working on the farms, I saw the people who were sick. There was a young woman who got malaria, and she died. She should not have died – if there was a health clinic, it could have been cured. But there is no medicine, there is no clinic.

I tried to tell everyone that the government couldn't just come and do this, but for them, they didn't believe. Because this is the life they've been living their whole lives. I was very upset.

So I decided that KWO and I had to work for the people. KWO promotes women's participation at all levels of decision-making. We have different programs: education and training, community care giving, income generation and documentation. We try to provide basic needs for new mothers. We run income generation projects where we provide women with looms for weaving traditional cloth, so they can gain a small income and buy basic needs for their family. We also document human rights violations such as sexual violence against ethnic minority women.

Women can be arrested, tortured, raped. It is very depressing to see these abuses. But at the same time I realized, what KWO is doing is important. We are encouraging women to be leaders, to be part of the solution. Even though some people think it is hopeless, I hope that we can get freedom in our lifetime.

Human rights abuses such as those accounted in this story are prevalent throughout Burma (Myanmar), and disproportionately target women and girls. AJWS recognizes that when women are oppressed, no human rights can be fully achieved. AJWS supports 19 community-based organizations on Burma (Myanmar)'s borders, working in areas such as health care, education, sexual and reproductive health and labor rights. To learn more, please click here.