‘Why Don’t Men Need to Be Virgins?’

By Samantha Michaels 27 July 2013

Sexuality and reproductive health are somewhat taboo topics in Burma, but as the country continues to reform after nearly half a century of military rule, women’s rights activist Ma Htar Htar wants to get the conversation started.

Ma Htar Htar is perhaps best known in Burma for her work with “Whistle for Help,” a campaign launched last year in Rangoon to raise awareness about sexual harassment on the city’s crowded buses. She and other volunteers attracted international media coverage by distributing whistles to female riders during the morning commute, with instructions to sound the alarm in the event of unwanted advances.

But the 41-year-old activist was raising awareness about women’s issues long before the whistle campaign. In 2008, she and a group of friends started meeting once a month to study reproductive health—a topic that they knew little about. Hoping to spread the knowledge, Ma Htar Htar helped organize a network of women’s groups to talk about gender roles, sexuality and reproductive health, as well as mother’s groups that could discuss child development and gender equality for the next generation.

Since then the network, now known as Akhaya, has continued to grow, with seven women’s groups operating today. In this interview, Ma Htar Htar tells The Irrawaddy why she wanted to spark a new conversation among Burmese women and how she’s busting local myths about female sexuality.

Question: Why did you start Akhaya?

Answer: There was no plan to start an organization five years ago. In 2008, a group of 10 women—five married, five single—gathered together to learn about female sexuality, basic sexuality about our own bodies, from an Israeli sex therapist who was visiting here. That was the first time we heard about these basic things, and it really changed our way of thinking, our way of living, to feel that we had control over our own bodies. This is information that we, women in Myanmar, never get, and as a result there is a lot of gender inequality. Women are treated like second-class citizens because we think our menstrual blood is dirty, for example, so we feel unworthy to be touched by men or unworthy to go certain places. It’s generational, it’s historical, this sense that we are second-class citizens. So I started to learn about basic female sexuality and I felt so empowered to know about my own body.

The group continued to meet once every month to learn about sexuality. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded an organization that created a website with a free online mini-course about sexual health. I thought, why don’t we spread the news to other women if they want to learn?

Q: When did you first become interested in learning about sexual health?

A: I used to work at Burnet Institute, an international NGO that works to prevent and treat HIV in Myanmar. I was in charge of prevention, and I was a sexuality trainer, but when people would ask about safer sex for HIV prevention, the conversation always stopped—we couldn’t go past a certain point. Our knowledge of sexuality was really limited—as a trainer I had a narrow focus, only about male homosexuality, or men having sex with men, but there was a lack of basic information about sexuality for both men and women. So I found a solution.

Q: Can you tell me more about the ‘Whistle for Help’ campaign?

A: The campaign was four mornings in February 2012. We wanted to raise the issue of daily sexual harassment on the buses, which has become a normal part of life for many women and is generally not discussed. Word spread through media coverage—there was international media coverage as well. A lot of people supported us, but they wondered whether women would actually blow the whistles, because in our society women are shy and submissive. Even the bus drivers supported us—they said they would distribute whistles if we came back in the evening, when more sexual harassment happens because men ride the buses after drinking. We realized the campaign would not completely stop sexual harassment, but we wanted to say that we would no longer accept it.

Now we have recruited some staff to carry out the next campaign, a second whistle campaign. But this time we aren’t leading the entire campaign—we’re working with other women’s groups, teaching them how to organize the campaign and giving them whistles to launch the campaign in different parts of Myanmar. In other places [outside Rangoon] there may not be buses, but sexual harassment also happens on the streets or on motorcycle taxis.

Q: What are some of the myths or misconceptions about sexuality and sexual health in Burma?

A: In Myanmar, women do not understand that our menstrual blood is clean. When we dry our clothes on a clothesline in the house, we can never hang our pants or longyis [a traditional type of clothing, often worn like a skirt] on the higher rope, or dry them with a man’s clothes. Normally we dry our pants or longyis on the lower rope, or in the back of the house in areas that are not clean or lack proper ventilation. A boy or man cannot walk under this rope, even if there is no clothing on it, or they will lose their higher status.

There’s an entire business that has sprung up around this myth: medicines to help women expel all their menstrual blood. It’s called Kathy Pan, and it’s very popular here in Myanmar, there are TV ads about it. The company is making so much money, they are doing good business. It’s a traditional herbal medicine—and it’s commonly used if women want to abort a pregnancy; they’ll take extra pills. We don’t have good research about it—we haven’t tested for side effects. There are also products to clean the vagina, to wash away discharge and the smell. But this discharge is like a natural medicine—we don’t realize and we wash it away whenever we use the toilet, so we are unprotected from bacteria. From this belief that the vagina is dirty, companies do good business.

Dirty doesn’t mean physically dirty, but low. There’s no written law, so when you ask women in Myanmar we will say we have equal status with men, but it’s in the roots, it’s unseen, really, this sense that we are second-class citizens.

Q: Are there other myths?

A: Another example is that during childbirth, we think the woman is so dirty that she is unworthy of touch for at least seven days. We put her in a special room while delivering the baby, and men—even the father—cannot enter this room. She needs to stay there for a week.

There is also a belief that if you are not a virgin, no man will marry you, and if you marry but are not a virgin, you will be an outcast. This is a double standard. Why don’t men need to be virgins? We discuss things like this.

Also, women can go to pagodas, but they cannot go to certain areas in the pagoda compound. I saw a photo once of a concrete fence at a pagoda compound where people could sit. There was a big red sign that said women were prohibited from sitting there, but there was a dog sleeping there on the fence. So women are not even as worthy as a dog.

Q: Is it challenging to encourage women to discuss these issues?

A: Sometimes women do not want to come [to our group] because we discuss sexuality, and they worry what other people will think if they attend. They are also reluctant to talk at first—they just want to listen—because in outside society we never share stories about sexuality, so if they bring up examples it is obvious they are talking about their own experience. But that’s why we started this women’s group, to share and realize that we are not alone. Later they begin asking questions.

Most sessions have participatory exercises. In the first session on sexuality, we play an ‘attitude game.’ Everyone stands and I read a statement, and if you agree you go on one side, and this sparks a debate.

Q: What kind of statements do you read?

A: An example would be, ‘You will allow your 4- or 5-year-old child to stand naked in front of his parents and his parents’ friends.’ Then, ‘Will you allow your boy child to be naked?’ ‘What if your child is a girl?’ Or we might ask about family planning, with a statement like, ‘Taking contraceptive pills is mainly the woman’s responsibility.’ Or, ‘Men have more sexual needs than women.’ Most people say yes to this one. … This is our belief, that men think about sex more and cannot control their sexuality—they see, they want and they must do. Another statement is, ‘Women ask for rape by the way they dress,’ and again, many people say yes.

Q: Have you noticed a change in attitudes after these discussions?

A: That’s difficult to monitor. But after sessions, we ask for comments or questions, and women say they feel empowered. They say, ‘Now we know women have sexual needs.’ Some say they never knew about this before, and they want to know more. Many say they feel free knowing that their menstrual blood is not dirty.

Q: What does Akhaya stand for?

Akhaya means essential, key, vital. Women here are seen as subordinate, but we believe that women take on a vital role in the family and are often forced to shoulder all the burden, so we have a key role to play and we are capable.