(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Addressing sexual violence in Mae La refugee camp

Myint Aye, chairwoman of the UNHCR-funded Sexual and Gender Based Violence Committee (SGBV), in Mae La Camp in Thailand on the border with Myanmar
Brennon Jones/IRIN

Mae La camp, the largest of nine for Burmese refugees on the Thai border, resembles a small thatched city, now more than a decade old, with a population of 50,000 registered and non-registered residents, according to camp officials and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).



Mae La suffers from a significant degree of sexual violence and domestic abuse, aggravated by frustration born of the inability to return to Myanmar, live and work openly in Thai society, or resettle in other countries, according to aid workers.



A Sexual and Gender Based Violence Committee (SGBV) was established in the camp in 2003 with support from UNHCR.



"For a long time, we had been informally helping people in the camp who had been abused," Myint Aye, committee chairwoman, told IRIN. Now it has 15 members, five of them men, and two interns.



While most of the camp residents identify themselves as ethnic Karen, many are Christian, Catholic, Muslim and Buddhist, said Soe Win, a Muslim member of SGBV. "I wanted to work with the committee as I was witnessing so much violence and abuse in the Muslim community and wanted to help," he said.



"We started the committee because we saw there were so many underage rapes and so much domestic violence in the camp," Myint Aye said.












Members of the UNHCR-funded Sexual and Gender Based Violence Committee (SGBV) in Mae La Camp in Thailand on the border with Myanmar

Brennon Jones/IRIN
Members of the UNHCR-funded Sexual and Gender Based Violence Committee (SGBV) in Mae La Camp in Thailand on the border with Myanmar
http://www.irinnews.org/photo.aspx
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Addressing sexual violence in Mae La refugee camp
Members of the UNHCR-funded Sexual and Gender Based Violence Committee (SGBV) in Mae La Camp in Thailand on the border with Myanmar


Photo: Brennon Jones/IRIN
Members of SGBV in Mae La Camp

The SGBV said it was getting numerous cases, although fewer than before the programme in 2003, but many more went unreported. "The committee acts as a first responder to acts of abuse," said Alexander Novikau, associate protection officer in the UNHCR Mae Sot office.



"In most cases, abused people, principally women and children, now come to us for assistance," Myint Aye said. "If it's a domestic violence case, we contact the section leader in the camp and the camp security office ... If the victim is scared [or] she will be further assaulted, we turn to the Karen Women's Organisation, which provides a safe house."



Serious criminal cases, mostly involving rape, are referred to the International Rescue Committee Legal Assistance Centre - a project within the camp and supported by UNHCR - which provides legal assistance and advice. If there are injuries, Aide Medicale International (AMI), which maintains two medical facilities in the camp, including a mental health project, provides assistance and refers sufferers to hospitals in Mae Sot City if evidence needs to be taken or the injuries are serious.



"If the crime is extremely serious," said Myint Aye, "the perpetrator could enter the Thai justice system either in a court at Mae Sot City or another nearby city."



"In some cases, we also engage in mediation and help in the process of reconciliation between the victim and the perpetrator," said Juna, vice-chairwoman of SGBV.













Drawings done by victims of sexual violence on display in the office of the Sexual and Gender Based Violence Committee (SGBV) in Mae La Camp in Thailand on the border with Myanmar

Drawings done by victims of sexual violence on display in the office of the Sexual and Gender Based Violence Committee (SGBV) in Mae La Camp in Thailand on the border with Myanmar
Brennon Jones/IRIN
Drawings done by victims of sexual violence on display in the office of the Sexual and Gender Based Violence Committee (SGBV) in Mae La Camp in Thailand on the border with Myanmar
http://www.irinnews.org/photo.aspx
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Addressing sexual violence in Mae La refugee camp
Drawings done by victims of sexual violence on display in the office of the Sexual and Gender Based Violence Committee (SGBV) in Mae La Camp in Thailand on the border with Myanmar


Photo: Brennon Jones/IRIN
Drawings done by victims of sexual violence on display in the office of SGBV

Rights training




The SGBV is not only involved in supporting the abused. "We've received many kinds of training ourselves, in women's and children's rights by the UN and the Legal Assistance Centre," said Myint Aye. "In turn, we now provide training to women in the camp so they know their rights," she said. "We also provide the same training to men so they know about a woman's rights."



SGBV also played a prominent role during the 16-day Campaign to Eliminate Violence Against Women, from 25 November to 10 December 2008. "Through songs and debates, we joined other groups in raising general awareness about women's rights and the importance of stamping out domestic violence and sexual abuse," said Myint Aye.



While the group receives general funding from UNHCR, it is eager to increase public awareness by producing educational posters and increasing outreach. "We also lack sufficient funds to help rape victims or those seriously injured who are sent to Mae Sot hospital [60km away] for tests or treatment and are often without sufficient clothing. Currently we can't do these things because we don't have the money."



Nevertheless, the SGBV committee takes pride in its accomplishments. "If we didn't have the funding we are getting now we would feel like helpless orphans."



bj/mw
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