Myat Aye is 15 years old and it is her job to take the family cow out to graze for a few hours every afternoon in the hot Delta plains. It is a dreary chore, but one day she gets talking to a boy a bit older than her who has been tasked with the same duty. They start meeting every other day in the fields and she looks forward to seeing him. But soon enough Myat Aye hears that rumours about her and the boy have started spreading in the village.
Myat Aye’s relatives tell her she is disgraced and must marry the boy. Myat Aye is horrified and tries to protest her innocence, saying that nothing happened between them, but her words fall on deaf ears and ultimately she has no choice but to obey. She’s grateful that her husband has at least moved into her family home rather than her having to move in with his, but as a newly married woman, she finds herself completely cut off from the world. She spends her days at home occupied with domestic chores and even if her husband were to give her permission to go out, she is burdened with a sense of shame about what happened to her. Before Myat Aye’s 16th birthday comes around, she realises she is pregnant.
“This kind of story isn’t rare,” said Brooke Zobrist, the founder and director of Girl Determined, a local NGO that launched programmes for adolescent girls in urban and rural communities across Myanmar in 2010.
During the past school year, Girl Determined has held weekly peer group sessions for 2,000 girls aged between 12 and 17. The sessions take part in urban and rural communities in Yangon and Mandalay regions and Shan, Mon and Kachin states, as well as 250 girls living in IDP camps.
“Many girls in these programmes are married with children by the age of 15 or 16,” Ms Zobrist said.
While Myat Aye’s future appears bleak, her participation in the weekly meetings have continued and this fact alone has prevented her from becoming totally isolated. As well as acquiring knowledge about reproductive health and having the opportunity to raise personal issues without fear of reprisals or judgment, girls like Myat Aye can also acquire potentially life-saving techniques – some of which are beautiful in their simplicity.
“If a girl finds herself being abused – whether it be by her husband, her mother or her mother-in-law, she can develop a safety plan with fellow group members. She could, for example, place a bucket on a post outside her house and when her friends see it, they’ll know to come and knock on her door and say hi,” Ms Zobrist explained.
Every group is led by a trained female facilitator, who more often than not is a member of the local community. While parents are given details about the two-year curriculum, which includes sporting and creative activities as well as those aimed at developing life skills such as goal setting and negotiation techniques, and soft skills such as boosting confidence and self-worth, everything that is discussed during the meetings remains confidential.
Although Girl Determined has encountered some resistance, which Ms Zobrist said tends to mostly stem from the household level in terms of a girl being told she cannot go because she has chores to do, overall, the response has been positive and Ms Zobrist and co-founder Nant Thazin Min have not encountered opposition at the community level. This may in large part due to the fact that the programme has expanded to different areas through word of mouth – and the recommendations most often come from local religious leaders who have seen the benefits Girl Determined confers on its participants.
“We meet parents all the time who say, ‘It’s amazing – I didn’t realise my daughter was so intelligent, so able and so vocal and we’ve started to include her in family decision making.’ That’s actual status change within the household and it’s a wonderful result.”
In fact, Ms Zobrist said that parents appear to be more amenable than ever before.
“I’d also assert that given this historical moment in Myanmar, parents are concerned about the future in a way that they weren’t in the past. Fifty years of military dictatorship have come to an end and things are really in flux now. So parents want to ensure their own children are prepared for a future they can’t anticipate.”
Since its inception, Girl Determined has been able to sustain its operations thanks to the generosity of private donors abroad and grants, the latter of which are inherently time-consuming to apply for.
Girl Determined’s first ever public fundraising event will take place this Sunday 28 June at the Goethe Institute in Yangon’s Bahan Township.
“It’s very exciting and a bit of an experiment to see how it will go – but we know there is a lot of good will out there. Girl Determined is an investment in the future of Myanmar and we’re hoping that people who are based here in Myanmar will be active in supporting what we are doing.”
Tickets for raffle prizes can be purchased online or at the door, with some prizes not requiring attendance. As well as a performance by the Gitameit jazz ensemble and complimentary nibbles, there will be an auctioning of works by the renowned photographer Andrew Stanbridge.
Over the past three years, Mr Stanbridge has donated his time to document Girl Determined’s activities and the lives of its participants in between assignments for National Geographic, Al Jazeera and the International New York Times. Mr Stanbridge’s photographs will also be exhibited at the event.
The Girl Determined fundraiser will be held this Sunday June 28 from 4pm until 7pm at the Goethe Villa on 8 Ko Min Ko Chin Road, Bahan Township.
For more information about Girl Determined and how you can help, visit www.girldetermined.org