This blog is written by Zar Zar Tun, our former South-South Fellow for the Labour and Migration Programme from September 2017-February 2019. We are currently accepting applications for the South-South Placement Young Women’s Leadership Programme. For more information, please visit this page.

My Story 

Growing up in a working-class family in a remote area of Burma/Myanmar was challenging in every perspective such as adequate income, job opportunity, quality health care and education. Consequently, my parents focused more on earning to support their children than spend time with us. Conservative social norms and patriarchal practices were enforced in their parenting toward us – son to be brave, masculine, educated, leading and protecting younger sister; and daughter to be domesticated, obedient and well educated. I questioned why we couldn’t choose whether to be masculine or conform to any standard and why we needed to fit in the social norms and gender roles. In short, people including my parents characterised me as disobedient, stubborn, outcast and boyish. Social settings were hard for a little girl like me who questioned social practices and those experiences gave me a determination to fight against gender-based social discrimination.

We lived in a small village called Kyaung Ywa, located in the Ye Township of Mon State, Myanmar. My parents worked in rubber and betel nut plantations. The income from plantations did not guarantee quality health care for the family and the children’s education. It became tough when we were in higher grades and my mother was suffering from Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML).  The AML treatment was extremely expensive for working class people like us from a remote area since quality healthcare was only accessible in the capital and big cities. At the end, we lost her in 2003 when I was only twelve years old. My father was left in a miserable condition with three children and a lot of debts. I learnt that healthcare is expensive and later learnt the importance of social security from the government.

The tragedy did not end here, poverty hit us hard when I was fourteen. Daily meals and affording school fee was a challenge after my father left our house for his new family. After suffering all those hardships, I was determined to escape from the working-class category for my generation and those to come afterwards. I believed that education was the only hope for changing my life. Therefore, in 2006, to survive, I went to Mae La Karen Refugee Camp to get free education, food and a place to sleep.

Zar Zar Tun (second from left, in yellow) facilitating a session at our FPAR Plus Workshop. Photo: APWLD

Life in a Refugee Camp

Myanmar is a country with the world’s longest ongoing civil war and ethnic conflicts, that started in 1948[1]. Civil war victims receive protection at refugee camps in neighbouring countries with the support of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Mae La Refugee Camp is one of the camps situated at the Thai-Burma border. The camps had United Nations Refugee Agency’s education programme for refugee children and students who faced difficulty in accessing education in their home country; many poor students from Myanmar and refugee children relied on the camp’s education programme. I completed my high school and higher education in the camp from 2006 to 2010 without realising both the Thai and Burmese governments do not acknowledge the certificates.

Living in the camp was mentally challenging and dehumanising as there was limited mobility, and to survive, refugees illegally participated in extremely cheap labour, suffered corruption by camp authorities and microeconomy was monopolised by rich Thai merchants. Having free education, free food and a place to sleep was not enough. I also worked as illegal labour like many refugees in Thai farms near the camp on the weekends. (They paid us 50 THB per working day while the minimum wage of Thailand was 140 – 190 THB in 2007)[2]. I was depressed and felt worthless living in the camp.

Year after year, the rate of suicides and suicide attempt in the camp increased.[3] Hence, I tried to understand the root causes of all form of discrimination and difficulties that I faced as a child. I realised that dictatorship is a fundamental issue which is embedded in patriarchy, it threatens women and children more as they are in a vulnerable situation, face discrimination and as refugees are dehumanised. I realised my passion was to make a system change so I made a commitment to pursue recognised higher education.

Higher Education Approach

Leaving the camp to start life was an adventurous decision, being penniless. I was selected to study the General Education Diploma (GED) (equivalence to American High School certificate) at Minmahaw Higher Education learning centre in 2011. Devotion to obtaining higher education was my only approach that could change life for myself, women around me and other marginalised people. Eventually, I received an opportunity to study Bachelor of Art in Social Science (International Programme) at Chiang Mai University with a scholarship award in 2013 and graduated in 2017.

Local Women’s Rights Organisation and Grassroots Organisations

My exposure to advancing human rights started as an intern with a grassroots organisation called MAP Foundation under the programme ‘Rights for All’ in Mae Sot during my university summer break. My areas of focus were women and migrant, youth, and empowerment projects. I learnt broader and practical experiences about various forms of violence against migrant women in the workplace or at home who have no social security and limited labour rights knowledge. I learnt the importance of providing labour rights knowledge and Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights to empower migrant women and engaged with girls to provide information about higher education opportunities after high school.

During my second-year summer break, I learnt about migrant workers’ healthcare who had no social security by joining Mae Tao Clinic’s management department in Mae Sot. Although I learnt management skills (scheduling staff duty, overseeing resources and logistic, organising medical training and staff development training, managing medical students and their boarding, etc.), I could not ignore the need of social security for migrant workers were as important as anyone else. The experience inspired me to deepen my interest in migrant workers issues and women’s rights.

Therefore, I explored an opportunity to work with a women’s rights organisation from Tavoyan Women’s Union (TWU) in Dawei, Taninthayee Division of Myanmar. People’s livelihood in Dawei was under threat; there were land rights issues because of it being a  Special Economic Zone. My work focused on violence against women and women and economy (emergency project).  My main responsibilities included case management (physical and sexual violence), safe house assistance, legal aid for bringing cases to court (violence against women cases and land grabbing cases), engaging with stakeholders, and teaching English to young office staff. I came to the conclusion  that women’s oppression in  Dawei was due to lack of rule of law (law served to enrich a group of people in power  and the cronies), while the government had  no accountability to human rights and environmental protection. For that reason, I believed that just providing aid was not the solution, and women need strong law enforcement that protected and ensured their rights.

Experience of Working with a Regional Network

It was my pleasure to work with APWLD as a South-South placement intern for eighteen months.  This opportunity helped me develop my feminist identity, and introduce knowledge, skills, and tools to grow the power of women’s movement. The priceless knowledge and skill I gained during the fellowship are analysing injustice with a lens of Globalisation, Fundamentalisms, Militarism, and Patriarchy. I could easily connect this with my own story, other people’s stories, the situation of migrants community, and women’s rights issues in Myanmar’s democratic transition. My story and experiences are of a vulnerable person but there are far more miserable stories of women and marginalised groups that have not been heard. So, after this fellowship, I am more committed than ever to fight for “Justice, Development Justice”.

Zar Zar at APWLD office wearing traditional Tavoyan clothing. Photo: APWLD

Learning from APWLD

The concept of movement building and strengthening women’s power with amplifying women’s voice leads to advancing women rights in the region. During my fellowship, I was part of the Labour and Migration programme (L&M programme) and mainly focused on Feminist Participatory Action Research (FPAR), Decent Work and Living Wage (End Precarious Work) campaigns, Global Compact on Migration and Global Strike planning. Working alongside L&M Programme Officer, I was able to learn programme implementation using feminist principles and  monitoring and evaluation using APWLD’s Theory of Change. I was grateful to be part of the team.

APWLD uses impressive tactics and tools to build women movement. I learnt the phenomenal analysis that Development Justice can be achieved only when these five shift happen: Redistributive Justice, Economic Justice, Environmental Justice, Gender and Social Justice, and Accountability to Peoples and that the root cause of women’s oppression and injustice are caused by Globalisation, Fundamentalism, Militarism and Patriarchy. I understood that evidence-based approach to influence policy change and organising people are effective strategies. Overall, the use of collective planning using Power Mapping, Critical Pathway, Movement Mapping, building campaigns and advocacy for different level of decision makers make people own the movement. I learnt that Development Justice is an effective way to build movements and APWLD brings the concept to reality.

I also learnt about the impact of neoliberalism and the importance of international advocacy to influence policies and laws, together with organising collective power against capitalism and put an end to trade agreements that undermine human rights. The experience of working with grassroots women from different countries for Feminist Participatory Action Research increased my organising skills. They have inspired me with their journey of persisting against patriarchy and fighting to ensure women’s rights in their communities. I gained encouragement from their impressive stories to work harder and be more committed than ever. Moreover, I had the opportunity to gain comprehensive knowledge on Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and understand that these trade agreements don’t have a human rights perspective and are not a solution for economic development for developing countries. One of the highlights during my time at APWLD was taking part in a rally against neoliberal policies by protesting President Donald Trump’s visit in Manila, Philippines. It was an amazing experience to see women’s collective power and regional solidarity.

Furthermore, the support from other programmes of APWLD also taught me valuable life skills. For example, different types of facilitating method helped me decide suitable methods or a mix of methods using the feminist facilitating principles. Women in Power programme’s Womanifesto training gave me a different perspective of organising women to shape their society by influencing policies and law. The example of the achievement of women’s agenda in Malaysia encouraged me to have more faith in “collective power”.

In terms of professional skills, I improved in professional writing, project management, advocacy and campaigning. I also learnt policy analysing by observing how Programme Officers worked on releasing a statement on the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and a feminist statement challenging World Bank and International Monetary Fund’s ‘development’ model . I witnessed that our organisation’s operation and management was as a team that has a sisterhood approach rather than hierarchical management. Programme Officers got Free Prior and Informed Consent from the Organising Committee to proceed with programme management tasks.

In conclusion, it is difficult to understand the whole movement from a different perspective as it has various dimensions in Women’s Movement.  However, I overcame the challenge and absorbed the knowledge and skills I could contribute to the movement building. I attended the Annual Planning Meetings (APM) in 2018 and 2019. In the 2018 APM, I could not contribute to programme planning or organisation planning, instead, my brain was digesting all the information that I was hearing.  However, I could process the programme work better by the end of 2018 and actively participated during the 2019 APM. I recommend continuing this South-South Fellowship project as an open opportunity for young feminist activist from the region to learn collective movement building. However, I hope APWLD can provide twelve months for South-South Fellowship project because a six-month timeframe is a short period to properly understand APWLD’s work.

Thanks to APWLD

I recalled myself at the start of the fellowship as a fresh graduate who did not have any concept of the discussion topics – Global Compact for Migration, Global Strike, Precarious work for women;  and was intimidated and inspired by experienced strong feminist activists at the Asia Pacific Feminist Forum. I evaluate the current me and I clearly understand about the root cause of all issues on human rights abuse and discrimination is based on GFMP (Globalisation, Fundamentalism, Militarism and Patriarchy) and believe the solution is Development Justice with the Five Shifts. Moreover, the implementation tools of organising were the priceless presents I got from APWLD. Thank you APWLD for giving me a chance for this experience and growth. It has shaped me to follow my passion and believe in the need to advance Women Human Rights together with fellow women. I am also grateful to have supportive, encouraging, experienced and brilliant sisters in APWLD. Especially Fai (L&M Programme Officer), she had not only been dedicated to mentoring and guiding me, but has also shared personal development skills. I appreciate the kindness, knowledge and skills that she passed to me. As I move on to the next chapter of my career, please know that APWLD and Fai have my sincerest gratitude for pushing me to be the best I can be.