Transforming Futures of Female Kachin IDPs Through Sex Education

By Tin Htet Paing 28 July 2017

WAINGMAW & MYITKYINA, Kachin State — Noticing she had a growing abdomen, 22-year-old ethnic Kachin woman Nang Tsin went to the only immediately available healthcare service nearby—a midwife. When the midwife revealed she was pregnant, Nang Tsin’s face grew flushed in front of the health worker, as the young woman had been seeing a local man in secret.

“My waistline became very obvious,” Nang Tsin, an internally displaced person (IDP) said, recalling the discovery of her pregnancy about six months ago as she nursed her two-month-old boy inside a 15 square-foot room of bamboo matting.

The midwife sent her for an emergency scan at the nearest clinic and the result showed that the baby was due in less than four months. When The Irrawaddy asked if she was aware of what caused her pregnancy, she responded, “I didn’t know,” with a soft voice.

Nang Tsin is one of some 150 women aged between 18 and 35 living at St. Joseph Mai Na Camp for IDPs in Waingmaw Township, Kachin State. The camp currently houses 1,472 people who fled from nearby villages, mostly in Waingmaw Township.

The camp has sheltered ethnic Kachin fleeing conflict since the 17-year-old ceasefire agreement between the Myanmar Army and the Kachin Independence Army broke down in 2011. To date, more than 100,000 have been displaced.

Even though doctors and nurses visited Kachin camps to raise awareness about reproductive health, Nang Tsin said she could not attend the talks as she was at school.

When The Irrawaddy visited the camp last week, women with infants wrapped in a blanket either on their backs or close to their chests was a common sight. According to the camp management, there are 74 children under two years old in the camp.

Nang Tsin poses for a portrait together with her 40-year-old mother Ja Mai at their bamboo shelter in Mai Na Camp in Waingmaw Township. (Photo: Tin Htet Paing/ The Irrawaddy)

A Lack of Sex Education

Though Nang Tsin may not be considered particularly young to have a baby, the fact that she lacked basic knowledge of pregnancy betrays the poor situation of sexual and reproductive health awareness in the camp.

Currently six months pregnant, Nang Tsin’s 40-year-old mother Ja Mai gave birth to her first child when she was 18.

She stopped receiving contraceptive injections believing that she had already reached menopause but the mother of six unexpectedly became pregnant again earlier this year. Living hand-to-mouth and working to provide for the family, Ja Mai said she didn’t even know that her daughter had a boyfriend.

According to Kachin-based Htoi Gender and Development Foundation, which has been working with women in the region—both in IDP camps and villages—advocating for reproductive rights and awareness of gender issues since 2011, women and girls in the camps can be more vulnerable than those who live outside of the camps because of the many social problems they must confront daily.

Nang Pu, founder of the Kachin State Women’s Network and the director of Htoi, told The Irrawaddy that many young women and girls living in IDP camps often face unwanted or unplanned pregnancies due to a lack of sufficient education, healthcare, livelihood opportunities, friendship and family support.

“They don’t get any emotional support to heal the trauma caused by displacement, [and] they have to live in very cramped or small places where they see things that they shouldn’t be seeing at a young age,” Nang Pu said.

“Their parents barely have time to be with them,” she added, noting that most mothers tend to work outside of the camp or take care of household chores throughout the day.

Nang Pu, founder of the Kachin State Women’s Network and the director of Kachin-based Htoi Gender and Development Foundation. She has advocating for women’s reproductive rights since 2011. (Photo: Tin Htet Paing/ The Irrawaddy)

Nang Pu added that apart from the conditions young girls face inside camps, the discrimination they experience at schools also attributes to emotional complications regarding sexuality.

“Their peers from school single them out for anything they do just because they are IDPs, which makes them see no future in education,” she highlighted.

She said that many such girls and young women then seek comfort in attention from men and boys who show an interest in them.

Addressing the Need for Knowledge

Recognizing the dire situation, a group called Colorful Girls run by a community-based organization known as Girl Determined, has been trying to give girls and women living in IDP camps the tools to tackle the obstacles they face.

Working with girls aged between 12 and 17 living across the country’s remote regions as well as in urban centers, the organization invites displaced girls into its athletics program and discussions about leadership, decision-making, friendship and sex education.

It aims to help displaced girls gain confidence and cope with complex traumas in their lives, said Dashi Htu Awng, the regional coordinator for Colorful Girls’ program launched in partnership with Htoi.

“During our discussions with them, we share basic knowledge about sexuality, their menstrual cycle and the risks of a sexual relationship with males as they reach puberty,” Htu Awng explained.

“By gaining knowledge about sexuality, they can protect themselves from teenage pregnancies, spread their knowledge to their friends, gain confidence and better manage their sexual development,” she said. “It is beneficial to their lives wherever they live.”

According to Dashi Htu Awng, the adolescent girls in displaced families often have to care for their younger siblings throughout the day while their parents are busy outside fending for the family, which decreases their chances of attending school.

As the possibility of returning to their homes becoming increasingly slim, young girls have a difficult time finding motivation in their daily lives and for their futures, she added.

Some girls fear menstruation, due to misinformation that their cycles make them “dirty,” Dashu Htu Awng explained, adding that many parents are not open with their daughters in discussing these issues.

Seng Mai, a 39-year-old mother of four, said her teenage daughter’s behavioral transformation after receiving sex education and female empowerment training has been mind-opening for her and her daughter. (Photo: Tin Htet Paing/ The Irrawaddy)

At Zilun Baptist IDP camp in Kachin State capital Myitkyina, Seng Mai, a mother of four, told The Irrawaddy that mothers like her don’t know how to explain sexual health and awareness to their daughters since they did not receive such knowledge from their own mothers.

Her 14-year-old daughter is one of the 250 young women benefiting from the Colorful Girls program across six Kachin IDP camps, and she said that her daughter’s behavioral transformation before and after receiving the training during the last two years has been mind-opening for them both.

“My daughter has become more self-assured and very aware of what she should be cautious of regarding relationships with boys,” said Seng Mai.

“If they are aware of how to prevent risk, they will know how to manage themselves and make their own decisions for their future,” she said, adding that she always encouraged her daughter to make time for the training.

With an ambition to be a schoolteacher, Nang Seng—a nickname by which she, Htoi and Colorful Girls requested that she be referred—said she is willing to share the knowledge she received from the training with her 9-year-old younger sister.

“Such knowledge is very crucial for young girls like us,” Nang Seng said, stressing that she had seen other girls at her camp who had conceived a child unintentionally and had to accept motherhood without preparation.

Filling The Gap

However, not every parent at the camp likes their daughters attending the training, believing that the organization is not helpful to their daily survival, Htu Awng said.

“One of the biggest challenges for me is how to better convince parents that what we are doing is for their daughters’ long term personal development rather than for immediate impact,” Htu Awng said, noting that IDP families rely on donor support in order to get by.

“They can’t keep living their lives from donations,” she said. “The families need support for capacity building to rebuild their lives and stand on their own feet.”

Recognizing that sex education is desperately needed for both the displaced population and those who live in remote villages, Htoi’s Nang Pu said that it is also crucial to restore sexual and reproductive rights for young girls living in IDP camps.

Such a strategy would reduce their vulnerability to sexual and domestic violence caused by a lack of awareness, and empower them with renewed confidence for their rehabilitation.

Nang Seng, 14, watches a Chinese drama on her mother’s mobile phone in her shelter at Zilun Baptist IDP camp in Kachin State’s Myitkyina. (Photo: Tin Htet Paing / The Irrawaddy)

She said, however, that the most important element is peace—for the fighting in the region to cease so that displaced families are able to return home and rebuild lives.

“Peace is the most effective resolution for them to go back to their homes with dignity and achieve a situation where they stand on their own feet,” Nang Pu said. “Everything else is chopping off the tree’s branches rather than digging up the roots,” she added.

While debates continue regarding the futures of those who have survived armed conflict, Nang Tsin and her husband are not sure about their own family’s immediately future.

“I recently learned how to weave, maybe I can make a living with this skill,” the young mother said.