An Update on the Challenges Faced by Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN) in Burma

28 October 2021

Since 2004, HART has supported the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN), a Community Based Organisation dedicated to gender equality and justice. SWAN coordinates a number of programmes relating to health, education and women’s empowerment, as well as emergency assistance and conducting advocacy and research, in dozens of villages inside Burma and amongst refugees in Thailand.

The situation for the many communities supported by SWAN inside Burma and on the Thai/Burma border has become increasingly precarious due to the conflict and has been compounded by stringent COVID-19 emergency measures. The fact that families living in the border areas are not allowed to leave their homes has significantly impacted their ability to earn sufficient money to cover basic needs. For individuals that can find work, it is usually for only about 10 days a month.  Since children are not attending school, one parent needs to remain at home while the other works in the fields. This has drastically reduced the earning capacity of many Shan migrant families, who face increased living costs and high transportation costs in remote areas. Additionally, children previously received free milk and lunches while attending school, but this has been discontinued in October 2021.  Now, “stateless children” are no longer eligible to receive either free lunches or milk at school. SWAN supports 5 schools, in this area, and about 80% of the approximately 1,100 students are in the “stateless” category and are therefore no longer eligible for free school lunches and milk.

The situation also means that those suffering from chronic ailments are unable to access the treatment they need, due to restriction of movement and lack of funds.

Members of SWAN deliver a health education session.

The military coup that took place on 1st February, 2021 has led to a situation of deep insecurity across the country. In over 300 towns across Burma, people demonstrated against the coup and many joined the civil disobedience movement. However, the army swiftly cracked down on the demonstrations and since mid-March, the military junta has used all forms of violence including arrest, killing, torture and sexual assault to suppress any opposition. Over 1,000 civilians have been killed by security forces, including 77 women. Meanwhile, the military junta has attempted to block the use of internet and other modes of communication, affecting daily lives and the banking system. The situation has had a devastating impact on the most vulnerable, particularly women and children. Airstrikes targeting civilians in ethnic areas of Kachin, Karen and Karenni and Shan states have internally displaced 210,000 civilians. The humanitarian situation has been further compounded by a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On 16 April,2021, a newly formed National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) consisting of ethnic political parties and State-based consultative groups who are committed to inclusiveness and collective leadership, announced the formation of a National Unity Government (NUG). In May, the NUG announced the formation of the People’s Defence Force (PDF) as its armed wing to launch an armed revolution against the military junta. And on 7 September 2021, the NUG announced a defensive war against the military junta urging citizens everywhere to revolt against the junta.

Along with the rest of the population of Burma, Shan communities have suffered from the impact of the military coup, its offensives and COVID-19. In Shan state alone, fighting has displaced 24,950 people with a further 5000 refugees.


Women caught in the Political Turmoil

From the early days of the coup, women have been visible in opposing dictatorship and participating in protests, in civil disobedience movement and in neighbourhood vigilance groups. They have been frontline protestors and activists on social media. Women of different ages and social backgrounds and those usually seen as apolitical, such as teachers and nurses, have become politically active and taken risks by participating in the protests. Many have been arrested by the Junta and it is reported that sexual violence and assault have been used as a weapon of war and a means of intimidation and control against women and girls at detention centres.

Eighty percent of IDPs produced by the military offensives since March are women and children. In many cases, pregnant women have been forced to flee to the jungle and give birth in the forest.

A SWAN CHW facilitates a workshop for displaced children.

Since the start of the democratic reform process in 2010, women’s groups like SWAN have had opportunities to create space for women in civil society and the last 10 years have seen women’s participation in politics increase significantly. However, the coup on 1 February was a major blow for this development.

Under these circumstances, SWAN’s work is more vital than ever for the communities that we support. SWAN has a record of developing initiatives for change, organizing campaigns and seeking justice for Shan women and girls against all odds.  Against the backdrop of the coup, SWAN members have been playing their part in many ways: through various media platforms raising awareness about the situation of women; providing safe communication channels to the international community; and responding to the needs of Shan communities in Shan State and along the Thai-Burma border.

HART is proud to support the work of SWAN and stands in solidarity with the suffering peoples of Burma/Myanmar.


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