Film to Highlight Burma’s Emerging Women Leaders

By Samantha Michaels 27 February 2014

Next month, a new documentary about some of Burma’s emerging women leaders is set to debut. The film, a project by a women’s empowerment group, profiles seven women around the country—ranging from an NGO founder in the remote Wa region to a member of Parliament in Naypyidaw—and highlights the challenges they have faced to help their communities.

The Thailand-based We women foundation helps promote educational and career opportunities for women from Burma, and its documentary “Emerging Women of Burma” will premiere on March 14 in Chiang Mai, Thailand, at Documentary Arts Asia, a nonprofit that supports Asian documentary artists. The film will also be released in Burma and the Netherlands, and it will be available on the foundation’s website. Before the launch, We women founder Ursula Cats explains who appears in the documentary, which activist she wanted to include but couldn’t, and what struggles women encounter while pursuing an education in Burma. For a preview of the film, check out the trailer.

Question: Who are the women featured in the documentary?

Answer: There are seven women in the documentary, chosen from a large number of nominees. One of them is E Pleeth Baung, an ethnic Wa woman who founded Gawng Loe Mu (Three Mountains), an organization that provides educational scholarships for students. Another is Mary Tawm, an ethnic Kachin woman whose family migrated from northern Shan State to southern Shan State following conflict. She founded Life Vision Foundation, which focuses on socio-economic development and environmental awareness. Kay Thi Win is from Yangon [Rangoon], but after her father died she moved to a border town and started working as a sex worker. She later founded the AIDS Myanmar Association, an organization run by sex workers that promotes health education.

Q: Only about 5 percent of lawmakers in Burma’s Parliament are women, and you featured one of them in your film. Can you tell us more about her?

A: Nang Wa Nu is ethnic Shan, and one of a small percentage of women in Parliament. Her father is a peace leader from Shan State and her family has been involved in politics since her great grandparents’ time. She is frequently the only woman at meetings and is one of a small number of women MPs, and one of very few women in Parliament from an ethnic minority. The documentary tells more about her motivations and her personal struggle, which was primarily in the face of opposition from her mother because her father was jailed due to his participation in politics.

Q: Are there other women you considered including in the film?

A: Daw Naw Ohn Hla, a long-time land rights advocate, was nominated and selected for her outstanding work. Unfortunately she has repeatedly been arrested and we were unable to get access to her. Her plight has received considerable media attention inside Burma.

Q: Is there anything in the documentary that might surprise people?

A: The international audience will probably be surprised to hear about the ongoing challenges women face in Burma and the continuation of violence and conflict. They may also be surprised by the struggles rural people in Burma face.

Q: Why did you make the film?

A: We were keen to highlight the work being done by emerging women leaders inside Burma. The only person who gains substantial international coverage is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, but there are many women who have overcome significant challenges and who are doing groundbreaking work in their communities. We wanted to facilitate awareness-raising and show the benefits of educating women.

Q: What are some of the barriers to education in Burma?

A: Most children stay in school for fewer than eight years, and only 11 percent of the student population goes on to enroll at university. Those who do make it to university not only have to pay high fees, but are not allowed to choose their area of study. The government assigns their courses based on the scores of their matriculation exam, regardless of whether or not they have any interest in the subject, and despite the fact that there are almost no jobs in certain fields, students continue to be assigned to subjects like physics and zoology.  Many feel their degrees are worthless. Currently, there are 156 universities in Burma, scattered across different regions so as to make access difficult, and the curriculum is still strictly controlled by the government. For students from rural areas, the difficulties are compounded.

Q: What challenges do girls and women face, in particular?

A: As Lway Aye Nang, previously secretary-general of the Women’s League of Burma (WLB), told IPS [Inter Press Service] news agency, “In both the cities and in rural areas, there is a greater likelihood that parents may keep their boys in school and take the girls out. Family members do not support daughters going to school if there is limited funding.” Consequently, the faulty educational system leads to the deepening of differences between genders, consolidating inequality within society. Traditional attitudes are that women only need to learn to read and write because they will marry and be supported by their husbands and therefore do not need to be educated. This is raised by several of the women featured in the documentary as a major issue.

Q: Where will the proceeds for the film go?

A: The proceeds will go toward the work of We women, which funds educational and professional opportunities for women from ethnic minorities and marginalized groups in Burma.