Building female leaders and community inside refugee camps

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Fifty-five year old Naw Ka Mwee Paw left Burma in 1984 when the ongoing civil war begun by the military regime reached her village. From 1949 on, the Burmese military has continued to oppress, forcibly displace and attack Karen and other ethnic groups. To protect its people, the Karen army (officially the Karen National Union or KNU) was created and has been fighting back in the long-standing conflict.

Naw Ka Mwee Paw remembers gunshots ringing out in her village. She sought shelter with her family and when the violent sounds subsided, they returned. This happened again and again. She continued doing field work to make money for her family, but was always afraid of the shooting and gunfire.

Her family decided they had to leave. They walked toward Thailand and after crossing the border, found refuge in Huay Kalowke Camp. Yet there were no ways for her to help bring in valuable income for her family. The only option was field labor, which would have forced her to leave the camp, work that is neither approved by nor protected by the Thai government. Workers who make their way to nearby Thai farms do so at their own risk and may be extorted or jailed for leaving the camps. In addition, farm work meant leaving her children all day, something she couldn’t do with a small baby.

Luckily WEAVE’s Income Generation Project (IGP) had already been launched in Huay Kalowke by 1996. Through WEAVE’s women leaders in the camp, she was given supplies to embroider handicrafts in her home for fair trade wages. She was able to set her own schedule, while taking care of her young family.

IGP not only allows her to make money for her family, but it also enables her to play a supporting role in community building.

As Quality Control leader (QC), she is a respected elder in the WEAVE project, and helps with decision-making for the group of artisans. Plus, she is responsible for training and encouraging the new women entrepreneurs, building their skills and confidence to run their own home-based businesses.

She is also a leader and supporter in her community, using the income and skills she has gained in IGP to help other women feed, clothe and educate their children. Her neighbors “are very poor and don’t have money to spend,” she explained. “I feel love for them and help take care of them. The money makes a big difference,” she said.

The money and support bring hope to the families and her work helps build a stronger society in the camp. According to her, IGP is “good for women and the (camp) area”. She added, “Men go outside to do labor, but camps need projects to support women at home”.

Her role as QC also empowers her to help create a unique market of products for domestic and international sale. She makes many of WEAVE’s product lines, including hand-made dolls.  As she explained, “products made in different camps have different styles…to make special products.”

Yet for all her acclimatization to living in refugee camps after 27 years, she still dreams about “life in Burma, going to the field, visiting friends- where it’s easy to travel.”

Naw Ka Mwee Paw explained her hope for the future, “I’d like to stay in Thailand and see my children and grandchildren.” Of her three children, one has been resettled to a third country, one lives in the camp and another is studying in Thailand.

She says, “As long as I have the strength, I want to work with WEAVE,” a role where she can continue to provide handicraft training to help even more women develop the skills they need to take charge of their family finances. It’s a position where she can continue to help those who cannot help themselves and feel empowered to create a stronger and healthier community.

About WEAVE (Women’s Education for Advancement and Empowerment)

Founded in 1990, WEAVE is a non-profit organization that helps and supports the needs of marginalized women along the Thai-Burma border. WEAVE advances the status of women and children to become socially, economically and politically empowered. Through programs for education and capacity development, WEAVE’s goal is to elevate women and children from poverty and vulnerability, to self-sufficiency and hope.

Names and some other identifying details have been changed to protect identities.

(By Sarah Matsushita)