We hear about the importance of the women, peace and security agenda however we don’t often hear about the interplay of girls, peace and security. Young girls can play a vital role in addressing conflict and inequality in their communities.
A group called Colorful Girls in Myanmar provides a powerful example of the dynamic and courageous role that young girls are assuming in challenging power in a country that is emerging from decades of military rule.
Colorful Girls is a grassroots organisation in Myanmar that is leading a movement to empower adolescent girls and young women with the confidence and leadership skills to prevent violence and trafficking, and to advocate for their rights. The organisation has supported several thousand girls and young women across the country over the last decade to gain confidence and connections through the programs it offers to girls from diverse cultures, ethnicities and geographies.
Finding their voice
Importantly, girls are supported to speak out rather than feeling compelled to be docile and quiet and in need of protection. By claiming their voice, girls are also more likely to speak out against abuse rather than stay quiet and be rewarded for enduring the abuse.
Zar Chi Win and Ji Mai are two members of Colorful Girls who are speaking out and sparking change.
Zar Chi Win told me “I joined Colorful Girls in 2011 when I was in 7th grade. At 14, I started working in the garment factory near my home during the summer, when school is out of session. In these factories, most workers are girls and young women. A lot of girls like me - some even younger - work in garment factories. In my factory most of the girls were below the legal age. In that work environment, the most common problem girls face is sexual harassment. I have experienced it myself. My supervisor harassed me, and when I responded to him by shouting back I was fired.”
Zar Chi Win was one of the girls who attended a series of workshops organised by Colorful Girls in Yangon and Mandalay to teach the girls how to organize and mobilize a campaign for social change.
She subsequently launched a campaign to combat harassment on public buses alongside other young advocates. They gave out whistles to women and girls to blow when they were being harassed. They spoke to bus conductors and fare collectors to get their support and to help anyone who was being harassed.
“From that campaign, I learned that we girls can speak out. We can do anything! Now as a Colorful Girls facilitator, I get the opportunity to help other girls become leaders.”
Ji Mai told me her story of living in a camp for the internally displaced (IDP). Her school studies had been interrupted in 2012 when war broke out in the nearby villages. She found herself in an IDP near the state capital where she and her family have been living for over five years now. She joined Colorful Girls in 2014.
“For girls like us living in IDP camps, we experience discrimination at school:
Some of the girls from my camp drop out of school to search for any possible paid work. During this process they will be exploited; some even become the victims of human trafficking. Some of my fellow girls have little hope, and can’t see any better options, so they will get married while still very young.
“Due to the living conditions and problems that we face, we have a lot of stress and anxiety. But, when I play sports, it helps me manage and reduce my stress. I get happy while playing sports. It has truly become an outlet for me. Now I coach volleyball for the Colorful Girls. I teach girls from different IDP camps. To meet them, to know them, to do what I am good at, makes me proud, and them hopeful. For all of us who experience trauma and ongoing gender discrimination, playing volleyball together is taking action. We can relieve our stress, learn real teamwork, and gain leadership skills. Confidence and hope are critical for us to take the lead in our own lives and make progress for all girls.”
Girls in action
By working with local girls and young women, Colorful Girls is helping them realise their own strengths and power to take the movement forward and help other girls in similar situations. By mobilising to confront abuse and violence, and using sport to build understanding between different ethnic groups, Zar Chi Win and Ji Mai represent the power of girls in actively build cultures of peace and resilience.
Ultimately they are reshaping the way girls are seen in Myanmar. By supporting girls leadership through organizations like Colorful Girls, we’re affirming girls’ strength and solutions and we’re ensuring we don’t lose another generation of girls to early marriages, trafficking and abuse. The time is now.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme, the International Inequalities Institute, or the London School of Economics and Political Science.