Thursday February 23, 2012
Myammar women refugees band together to help each other
By TAN SU-MAY
Myammar women refugees are banding together to lift up their spirits amid harsh living conditions here.
MYAMMAR refugee Tanda Htun is no stranger to hardship. It has been six years since the 30-year-old Myammar woman fled the military regime back in her home country, and still she continues to live with fear and uncertainty. In Malaysia, Tanda has worked in restaurants and polished cars at a car wash, and she constantly worries about being arrested by the police again.
“I was a social worker in Myammar, promoting Mon culture. But the government doesn’t allow this, they don’t want you to practise your culture,” says Tanda.
Although Tanda lives with five other families in a small flat here, and is unsure of what her future holds, she says life here is still better than in Myammar.
Tanda is one of the 28,500 registered women refugees from Myammar who fled to Malaysia to escape persecution under the military rule. They are hoping to be repatriated to a third country which will grant them permanent residence. However, there is no telling when and if they will eventually be repatriated. In the meantime, they live here and try to eke out a living.
Malaysia is not a signatory of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which recognises the rights of refugees and accords them protection. Under Malaysian law, there is no distinction between a refugee and an illegal immigrant. Even if they have registered with the United Nations Refugee Centre (UNHCR) in Malaysia, they have no access to legal employement or formal education. They can be detained, locked up and deported even if they hold a UNHCR card.
“Many of the women are depressed or show signs of depression,” says Elodie Voisin, Volunteer Coordinator at Tanma Federation, a union of three Myammar women refugee groups based in Kuala Lumpur. “They cannot eat, they cannot sleep, they feel hopeless and live in fear every day.”
There are about 98,000 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia. About 88,500 are Myammar nationals, and they are usually divided according to their ethnic groups. There is a support network within these communities, and they have initiatives to help their countrymen cope with life here. This includes setting up schools for the children, and income-generating projects for the women. One of these organisations is Tanma Federation, whose mission is to create a safe place for Myammar women to earn an income, protect their rights and empower them through skills learning programmes.
Tanma means “strength” in the Myammar language. Since its inception in 2010, the organisation has managed to unite and empower some 200 Myammar refugee women in Malaysia.
Tanda is now concentrated on making soap and massage oil based on traditional Mon recipes at Kaoprise, one of the three livelihood projects in the Tanma Federation.
Many Mon people are farmers who live far away from modern healthcare facilities, they are well-versed in the art of self-remedy. All Kaoprise products are organic and made from plant-based ingredients such as lemon grass, coconut oil and vanilla.
“The coconut oil is what my mother used on me when I was young. It is good for the skin and the hair,” says Tanda.
The other two groups in Tanma are Mang Tha (run by the Alliance of Chin Refugees) and the Chin Women’s Organisation (CWO). Mang Tha makes sewn and woven products such as soft bags, pouches, baby slings, passport holders and bibs – they can basically make anything that people bring to them.
Their best-selling item is the baby ring sling which is already being sold in certain baby shops in the Klang Valley. You will recognise it by the unique Chin fabric it is made of. All Mang Tha products are made from this unique fabric which is woven in the centre itself. Apar who heads Mang Tha, with her baby in her arms, shows how a woman winds yarn with a machine made from a bicycle wheel. “Then they do the weaving in there,” she says, pointing to a large wooden contraption that takes up an entire room.
Tanma provides the women with more than a safe place to earn income.
“Before Tanma, the women stayed at home because they were afraid to work outside as they worried about being caught by Rela or the police,” said Apar. “But after coming to Mang Tha they are happier, they make new friends and can share how they feel.”
Tanma is housed in a shoplot in Pudu, Kuala Lumpur. They do not only weave cloth and make soap to sell, but also attend classes. There are English lessons, and they also learn communication, leadership, and money management skills. Women who used to run out of the room because someone was watching them speak are now discussing issues such as human rights, gender-based violence and Fair Trade marketing.
Many of these Myammar women also bear the responsibilty of looking after their children. It is not uncommon to find a few refugee children at the centre after school or babies being passed around while their mothers work. The women describe coming to the centre and feeling “lighter and happier.”
“We forget our stress (at home), to come to the centre is very good,” says Tanda.
For her, the most valuable thing she has gained from Tanma is confidence. She loves the training programmes and has picked up many skills. “I now know how to coach other women, to counsel people, to write proposals and to manage women’s projects,” she says.
She put these skills to practise in leading Kaoprise. “Now, even the men call me when they want to discuss financial matters, or want to know how to solve certain problems.”
Tanma also runs classes to help Myammar couples deal with violence.
For many Myammar refugees, home is a cramped flat shared with four or five other families, and even single men. In this environment, it is not uncommon for couples to fight due to jealousy and suspected infidelities. With the woman’s family and relatives far away, the men also tend to be more controlling over their wives.
“In Myanmar, the men want to see food and water on the table ready when they come home from work. And here, it is the same. They don’t want the women to go out for social activities, classes or training. They want the women to cook and clean the house.”
When the women start to earn income in cooperatives such as Tanma, the husbands can get violent. This is why the gender-based violence training programmes are very important. They help ease the conflict between husband and wife, and make it easier and safer for the women to work. It also empowers the women to speak out if they are victims of abuse, when they would previously have just kept quiet and accepted it as part of their culture.
Supporting the business
Tanma now sells its products in churches and bazaars; they do not have fixed retail outlets. They are supported by various expatriate groups and their products are popular at Fair Trade shops in France and Belgium. However, the women prefer to focus on the local market. “We want to reach Malaysian people,” says Elodie. “We want to spread the message that ‘we are here, we need help’.”
Tanma invites people to help by sharing any skills the women could learn, volunteering some time to drive the women to sales venues or discuss partnerships on how they could work together. “We want to coax Malaysians to work with us. Treat us like people, not refugees.” says Tanda.
Tanma operates out of a few shop lots situated in Pudu, where many Myammar refugees have set up home. Sometimes a flat with a kitchen and a bathroom is shared by seven families. It might be cheaper to live further away but change is hard.
“The community is here. The community centre, the schools and the men work nearby. If anything should happen, they have friends here, they feel safe,” says Elodie.
n Tanma products can be purchased at Tiny Tapir (Bangsar Village II Shopping Centre, Kuala Lumpur) or at online store, elevyn.com. For more information, please call 014-666 1435 or 03-7770 3671, or visit tanmawomen.org or on Facebook at Tanma Federation.
They will also be setting up stall at Stand Out, an International Women’s Day Fundraiser event on March 8 from 7-11pm, at Doppel Cafe, Central Market Annexe, Jalan Hang Kasturi, Kuala Lumpur.