There are eight ethnic minority nationalities in Burma. They are Chin, Kachin, Karen, Burma, Karenni, Mon, Rakhine and Shan. Each ethnicity has its own culture but also shares a little bit in common with one another. Each ethnicity speaks different dialects and some even have several dialects within their own group. Most of ethnic groups from Burma will use Burmese when communicating with each other. Because of civil war in Burma a lot of ethnic groups moved to the border of Thailand and became refugees.
In the refugee camps, there are a lot of rules to follow but the rules are different from here in the US. Domestic violence is seen as a family problem so nobody will help in these situations. People can know what is going on and gossip within the community but no one will help the family or victims resulting in the victim running away. If sexual assaults occur, the camp leader will get involved only if it was a child that was the victim. For teenagers and adults, being sexually assaulted would lead to the victim having to get married to their abuser because of cultural stigma. Women believe that after they have touched or have had sex with someone they have no pride left. So in order to keep their pride and save face for their family they will marry the abuser.
Working with victims here in US can sometimes be a challenge. It can be difficult to discuss sexual assault with people who have not had to discuss it previously. But what I do is build trust between me and the survivor. I also am patient with the survivors and take the time to explain things slowly and clearly. Sometimes individuals will respond quickly but sometimes some won’t even talk about their situation. But, patience is the key. As long as I continue helping and working with the survivors, over time they will build trust and start to disclose what has been on their mind. Currently, victims and survivors from the Burmese community have not accessed Monsoon services directly in regards to domestic violence (DV) and/or sexual assault (SA). In situations dealing with domestic violence the victim will only look for help when they are really frightened. These situations highlight the importance of domestic violence and sexual assault education. When I do intakes with survivors, I would normally ask a survivor if her husband has ever sexually assaulted her. I also have to explain what sexual assault is before asking the question otherwise the survivor will think sexual assault can only occur between them and a stranger.
I do community outreach twice a month in two different buildings focusing especially on Karen women. Early on in my outreach I was conscious of what the women wanted to hear and what they didn’t want to talk about. I started with addressing their barriers, where to get help with benefits, and how to raise their children in US. Sometimes I would engage the women in reading or writing activities but some of them don’t know how to read or write even in their own language. It’s really hard for them to memorize English words also. For example, every time I go meet the women I have to introduce myself and where I work and the purpose of my outreach. The next time I come back they won’t remember a lot of what I said before. But, as I mentioned earlier, patience is the key to working with the community. In the past, I would ask them a question and the response would usually be “I don’t know” or the group would just be silent. But now the women like to share their stories and improve their talking amongst each other. I am able to talk to them about domestic violence and sexual assault as well now. The women are open to discussing domestic violence and sharing stories about this subject but not as much when discussing sexual assault. They told me they understand more and have gain more understanding of domestic violence. Unfortunately, cultural thinking still abounds and many women think that domestic violence is a family issue and therefore are reluctant to call police even if they are victims or know about a situation within their family. The women feel that only the family is able to resolve their own problems. This perception ties back to the way DV and SA was viewed in the refugee camps. In the camps when a couple/family had DV or SA issues if you intervened and the abuser ended up going to jail or the victim ended up being ostracized the family would blame you. Now, with my outreach I explain to the community that there are agencies such as Monsoon United Asian Women of Iowa that will assist the victims/survivors so community members shouldn’t worry about being blamed for wanting to help. I have explained to them that the role of the community is to let each other know that we are here to help them and that they should refer people to us that need help.
It is a great experience working with the community. It comes with its challenges but the rewards are just as equal.