There’s a Burmese saying “If a thorn falls on a leaf, the leaf is pierced. And if a leaf falls on a thorn, it’s still the leaf that’s pierced.” It’s a metaphor describing the vulnerability of women, who usually end up having to bear the cost when things go wrong, irrespective of why or how.
Growing up surrounded by fiercely independent women - and men who were fine with that - I’d always considered the saying an anachronism. Recent meetings with several women made me realise the saying is, sadly, still very relevant in Myanmar, which remains a deeply conservative society.
Take the sweet, soft-spoken 16-year-old Burmese Muslim girl I met in a town in central Myanmar. Instead of enjoying carefree teenage years, she was busy taking care of her sick 16-month-old daughter and earning a living working at a betel nut factory for 1,500 to 2,000 kyats (about $1.75 - $2.30) a day.
There have been reports on how Burmese girls are trafficked to China and forced to marry men who couldn’t find or afford brides. Forced marriage also happens within Myanmar, though less light has been shed on this because it touches on perceived cultural values and traditions.
At 14, marriage was the last thing on this girl’s mind when a distant relative came to ask for her hand. Her relatives and widowed mother wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, so she ran away to a friend’s house. She was quickly found and, within a week, was married.
“My mother said I should get married when there’s someone who wants me. She sees (being proposed to) as something to be proud of, which adds to a girl’s dignity and stature,” she said.
"I cried continuously for 10 days."
BEARING THE COST
The marriage did not last. After two months, she left her husband after a row and returned to her mother’s house. She found out she was pregnant the next month but the husband’s family wouldn’t take her back. They told her he’d married his old girlfriend, whom his parents had not been in favour of previously. She hasn’t seen him since.
“He doesn’t come and see his daughter. (His family) said it’s not theirs,” she said.
Scared off the thought of another marriage, she rarely goes out socially these days, worried that people will think badly of her.
She was matter of fact when recounting her forced marriage and its consequences, but started sobbing as the conversation turned to her daughter. “I won’t force my daughter to marry against her will,” she said. “I want her to be educated when she grows up."
I also met a 19-year-old who had a lucky escape from traffickers who wanted her to become a sex worker. A new neighbour her family befriended promised her and a friend jobs at a store in a big town nearby, paying 45,000 kyat (about $52) a month.
"Our current work - washing clothes - doesn’t provide a regular income. When there’s rain, we have no income,” so the offer of a stable salary was attractive. Instead the brokers - two women - took them to a town in Myanmar’s far north, the first time she’d left her own neighbourhood.
“When I refused (to become a prostitute), they said they'd spent transport and other costs on us and we'd have to work to repay them,” she said. “They said I should jump to my death from the bridge in the town if I couldn’t repay them.”
The girls only managed to get home because good Samaritans took pity on them, helped them call their families and paid their coach fares home. The ordeal lasted just over a day but the episode has scarred her. "Now I don’t go (anywhere) if it involves staying overnight,” she said.
CONSERVATIVE ATTITUDES TO WOMEN
The conservative nature of Burmese society, like many in Asia, is a major reason why girls suffer more than men from these situations. Girls are expected to be feminine and delicate, yet are encouraged to migrate in search of jobs and money when the need arises. Many parents and ‘luu gyi’ (“the elders” in Burmese) still consider marriage the ultimate goal for their daughters and do not consider how they will be treated afterwards.
The ideal of a ‘pure’ woman means that any female no longer fitting the mould, through no fault of her own, is looked down on and blamed: trafficking victims are too trusting or too greedy, young single mothers are too forward or did not have the maturity to make marriage work.
Yet I’m hopeful these attitudes will change and I believe they are changing.
What we need are people like this vivacious 52-year-old widow who rejects the blame game in favour of open-minded support for women facing such problems. She once used herself as bait to apprehend a broker who was taking young single girls to China, though she was forced to abandon her plan when she lost contact with the anti-trafficking police as they neared the Myanmar-China border.
She hasn’t given up the idea of luring the traffickers again, but for now she’s busy helping victims of trafficking and forced marriage rebuild their lives. “I’d be happy if abuses against (the girls) stop and they have a good life and future,” she told TrustLaw.
It may be that the leaf will always remain vulnerable to the thorn, but I hope that in the near future society won’t blame the leaf or see the tear of the thorn as a permanent black mark.