Naw Wah* fled her village in Burma when she was 15. Her close-knit, rural community had grown crops like rice and cardamom; together, they had cultivated a modest living from their land. But when the Burmese military arrived, they ran for their lives.
For decades, the Burmese government brutally attacked Naw Wah’s people, the Karen, along with other ethnic and religious minorities throughout the country. To escape the violence, Naw Wah and hundreds of thousands of other people traveled to refugee camps.
Unfortunately, Naw Wah’s refugee camp—in the forested mountains along the Burma-Thailand border—didn’t ensure her safety. She was raped there, and soon discovered that the attack left her pregnant.
Her attacker was never arrested or imprisoned. The laws and governing systems for refugee camps are complex, and sexual violence often goes unpunished in the legal limbo. Inside the thin bamboo walls of a camp house, Naw Wah told her story in a whispery voice.
“Some people hurt themselves when this happens to them,” she said. “Some commit suicide.”
Naw Wah didn’t endure the effects of sexual violence alone. She sought help from Karen Women’s Organization (KWO), an AJWS-supported nonprofit group that works to protect women’s rights. They gave her the support she needed to build a life with her young daughter, including food, clothing and a new home.
KWO also taught Naw Wah about human rights, and she participated in their women’s leadership training. With new knowledge, confidence and skills, Naw Wah started to help other women who had experienced gender-based violence.
Today, Naw Wah manages a KWO safe house for abused women and children, which is located in a secure, private location of the refugee camp. “I’m feeling better now,” she said. “Like we women are on equal terms to men and can work shoulder-to-shoulder with them.”
Supporting women like Naw Wah is the goal of the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA), a piece of legislation recently introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. IVAWA would ensure that anti-violence programs meet the needs of vulnerable communities, whose experiences of violence are often under-reported or rendered invisible.
Lastly, IVAWA would put the full force of the U.S. government behind Naw Wah and women like her worldwide, making the end of violence against women and girls into a top U.S. diplomatic priority.