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‘We must help and support people to speak out whenever they face any form of violations; we need to hear from them and raise their voice to the world.’ ‒ Interview with Naw Hser Hser, Secretary General of the Women’s League of Burma

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In this month’s e-newsletter, FORUM-ASIA talked with Naw Hser Hser, Secretary General of the Women’s League of Burma, FORUM-ASIA’s member in Myanmar. In the interview, Naw Hser Hser shared with us how the oppression and gender-based violence in the region motivated her to study human rights and speak for the people whose rights had been violated.

How did you become involved with human rights? And how did you become involved with FORUM-ASIA?

I come from the Karen community, one of the minority groups living in southeast Burma. We have been suffered from civil wars for long, and throughout my life, I have witnessed so many civilians being displaced and needing to flee from home. They have no access to education nor support due to the conflict.

I saw women being raped, people being killed, tortured, and forced to be porters. I saw how our peoples’ rights are violated by the military during the civil war. So, I decide to study human rights and speak up for them, especially for women who experience sexual and gender-based violence.

Before the Women’s League of Burma became a member of FORUM-ASIA, FORUM-ASIA has been known for taking a strong stance for human rights and supporting human rights defenders.  When I represented the Karen Women Organisation and joined the Women’s League of Burma in 2018, I attended the 8th Human Rights Defenders Forum organised by FORUM-ASIA in Bali. I was a panellist sharing about the security risk faced by human rights defenders.

I was also involved in FORUM-ASIA’s activities, including contributing to the assessment of the ASEAN Commission on the Rights of Women and Children, and the ASEAN Commission on Human Rights.

What motivated you to become involved? And has that motivation changed over the years?

 There is still a long way to go to what we want to achieve ‒ justice and accountability.

In Burma, conflicts are still ongoing, and human rights violations almost happen every day due to repressive laws and policymakers who do not respect rights. The presence of oppression keeps me motivated to continue my advocacy work.

Now, we have many groups standing with us, including FORUM-ASIA and many other regional and international community that stands for human rights, for change, for safer and better lives.

This motivates us to work more and harder for the issues we care about and demand accountability.

Through various human rights mechanisms such as the fact-finding mission, we get a chance to expose human rights violations by raising our concerns and speaking up. These support mechanisms and resources enable us to work more with confidence.

What we have done and advocated for has received recognition and appreciation from people we work with, especially from survivors of violence. Because of the trust they have in us, we can bring their voice to the international level and make their stories heard.

Please tell us one of the most inspiring moments for you in your work in the past?

 I had never thought that I would have the opportunity to speak at the UN in Geneva. In 2016, I attended the review session of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and I gave an oral statement about Burma’s human rights situation. It was the first time in my life that I could speak up for women and children and the rights violations in Burma at an international platform.  This experience has inspired me a lot as I had a chance to speak with many international representatives, exchange our ideas, and tell my stories.

What do you experience as the main challenges as someone working on human rights? And how do you deal with such obstacles in your work?

There are many women groups in the country, but only a few are working on rights violations in conflict-affected areas, so it has been challenging to bring a strong voice together.

Sometimes, some women are afraid to share their experiences, and they are not confident to work on human rights. There are not many women or women-led organisations who speak out for women facing systematic violence during conflict. If all women can gather and speak out together, we can make more changes.

Another challenge is that, after the ceasefire agreement was signed, it is more difficult to deal with rights violations. People are told by their leaders or policymakers to believe that ceasefire will automatically bring peace, and they are not encouraged to speak up against rights violations.

After the ceasefire, international investment has come, business companies are engaging with communities, leading to many rights violations. However, very often, disputes or problems were settled by money, but it did not address the root causes.

To counter the challenges, we start with prevention and protection. We raise awareness of what people can do to prevent rights violations, and to demand justice and remedies if violations happen.  For people who do not dare to speak out but want to speak out, I ask them to share their stories with me as someone they trust, and I speak out for them.

If you could give a message to the new generation of people working on human rights or development, what would it be?

It is crucial to have your values and stand firmly for them. For example, my value is justice, so I will not let it go if any injustice happens. If we have clear values, we know where we stand.

We must help and support people to speak out whenever they face any form of violations; we need to hear from them and raise their voice to the world.