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Global Feminist Profile: Charm Tong

December 21, 2009

Charm Tong/World People's Blog

Global Feminist Profiles highlights feminist leaders all over the world who are creating change and empowering their countrywomen to demand equality. GFPs run on the third Monday of each month. This month’s featured activist is Charm Tong, who works to defend the human rights of refugees fleeing the Burma military regime.

When she was six years old, Charm Tong’s parents sent her across the Burma border to seek safety in a Thailand orphanage. A decade later, Tong began counseling refugees who also made the dangerous trek to escape the ethnic violence of her homeland. In 1999, at the age of 17, Tong stood before the UN Commission of Human Rights in Geneva and described the violence and rape endured by the women she counseled. The audience included members of the Burma military regime which perpetuates that violence. Now 27, Tong continues to speak out against the atrocities occurring in Burma.

News coverage of the political violence that has plagued Burma (also known as Myanmar) for decades has of late mainly focused on the opposition party’s efforts to fight the repression of the nation’s ruling junta. The leader of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been under house arrest for fourteen years and now faces an 18 month extension to her imprisonment. While Suu Kyi and the NLD lead the movement calling for democratic elections in Burma, activists such as Charm Tong are campaigning for the human rights of Burmese refugees on the grassroots level.

The US State Department estimates that over two million Burmese have fled their homeland, and about 150,000 of these refugees live in Thailand camps along the border with Burma.  Many refugees who, like Tong, hail from the Shan province are unable to reach refugee camps and become migrant farm workers or sex workers in Thailand. Many Burmese women therefore face the double injustice of violence in their homeland and few prospects for a better life in exile.

In an interview with the Washington Post last year, Tong expressed gratitude for the education she was able to receive in Thailand and described how the stories of refugees affected her:

“With time I began to understand. Fresh out of junior high I began hearing about and seeing the scars from all the atrocities,” she noted. By the time some women shuffled across the northern Thai border, they had been raped six to eight times. “They arrive with nothing,” Tong said. “You never forget their faces. So many women believe it was their fault and ask us if they had done anything wrong. We were traumatized just listening to them relive their horrors,” she added.

In 2006 Tong told the Burma Digest that many young women are still not secure once they escape Burma:

The problem is it’s very difficult to make a living. We are talking about many students the same age as me who were trafficked into sex work. They are very vulnerable to the situation. They are from conflict areas and fled from Burma because of attack by Burmese troops, but when they fled to Thailand, they are very vulnerable.

At 17 years old Tong joined a group of 40 women who founded the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN).  The activist group received international attention in 2002 when it released a report, “License to Rape,” describing the use of rape as a weapon of war in Burma. Tong also founded a school for Shan children in Thailand. The School for Shan State Nationalities Youth held its 2009 graduation ceremony this month. The Shan Herald interviewed several graduates who hope to follow in Tong’s footsteps:

“I didn’t know anything about my country when I first came to the school,” said a female graduate. “Burma’s TV channels only show news about the generals and what they are doing. Now I know what’s wrong with Burma and have learned the many ways how we can change it.”

Tong was honored with a Human Rights Global Leadership Award from Vital Voices last year, and she has also been recognized by Time Magazine and the Reebok Human Rights Foundation.

Even with all her awards and long list of achievements, nothing proves Tong’s courage and dedication to her work better than her own emotional words about the refugees she strives to help.

Charm Tong Speaks for Burma from truthlovenature

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