Greetings – It’s already been a busy fall at Asia Catalyst.
We were thrilled to bring Khine Su Win, our Myanmar Program Officer, to the United States in September. She traveled to New York and Washington, D.C., gave presentations to supporters and allies, and enjoyed some of the sites from Broadway to Chinatown! Khine started her career as a medical doctor in Yangon providing HIV-related care for sex workers and men who have sex with men. Motivated by her desire to understand the barriers to care clients faced, Khine went back to get a Master’s degree in public health. At Asia Catalyst she gets to address structural injustices that exclude people from healthcare by working with communities who are systematically discriminated against and denied access to public services.
It’s been two years since we launched our Myanmar Country Program. The hunger for our year-long intensive training program has been positively overwhelming. Over the past year, Khine has led our human rights documentation and advocacy program with rural women, LGBT communities, people who use drugs, women living with HIV, and opium farmers in Shan and Kachin states – and the demand is only increasing.
Khine’s work with the Mandalay-based LGBT rights group, TRY, is one example of how our partnerships foster positive change. Trans people and gay men were regularly being harassed and extorted for bribes or arrested by the police. In our program, TRY learned how to document cases of unfair arrests and present their evidence to local officials. When arrests escalated during a community festival, TRY honed in on the precinct where most of the arrests were taking place. They had a productive meeting with the police chief and set up an emergency legal response team. A year later, the arrests have gone down. And now, when people are detained, instead of being held for days or weeks, they are usually released by the next morning. Advocacy by TRY to address police behavior and spread awareness of LGBT people’s legal rights continues.
When asked how things have changed in the last year, the manager of TRY said: Police are afraid to do violations to LGBT people such as physical abuse, verbal abuse or asking for bribes. They feel like they have been watched and know we will not be silenced.
Kyle Knight, who works in Human Rights Watch’s LGBT right program said: To be able to get that kind of engagement from the police is amazing. It speaks volumes to how effective this advocacy has been.
This article explores how nonprofit Asia Catalyst implemented a rights-training program for community-based organizations (CBOs) in Myanmar and the positive outcomes of these collaborations. The three CBO partners discussed represent heavily marginalized groups in Myanmar: people who use drugs, people living with HIV, and sex workers. Through this program, Asia Catalyst taught rights-driven approaches to gathering data in interviews, which has helped the groups sharpen and enhance their advocacy skills, which in turn has enabled them to effectuate positive change.
Asia Catalyst is a nonprofit
organization empowering community-based organizations (CBOs) with tools
and resources to help them become more effective in human rights
documentation and advocacy, which strengthens organizations’ ability to
function democratically, sustainably, and more effectively cater to the
needs of their communities. We have worked domestically, nationally, and
internationally to empower hundreds of civil society groups across
Asia, primarily in China and Southeast Asia, since 2006. We began
working concertedly in Myanmar in 2015 with our Regional Rights Training
(RRT) program, which also included Viet Nam, Cambodia, and China. The
RRT program focused on strengthening CBOs through workshops on topics
such as a rights-driven approach to data collection and documentation,
regional coalition-building of like-minded organizations, publications
of comprehensive reports highlighting findings and policy
recommendations, and customized advocacy support to assist in
implementation of rights-based advocacy projects for each of the
participating groups. In 2017, Asia Catalyst established a country
program in Myanmar to focus on continued rights training demand from
local CBOs following our successful RRT engagement. Through this new
Human Rights Documentation and Advocacy Project in Myanmar, CBOs are
guided through the rights framework and identify priority issues to
document and create an evidence base for policy advocacy and coalition
Myanmar has undergone widespread changes in government and expansion
of civil liberties since November 2010, when the long-ruling military
junta was replaced by a military-backed civilian government.
Accompanying changes such as the revival of democracy, the installation
of a human rights commission, and the advent of legalized
demonstrations in Myanmar are the collective efforts of government,
nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), intergovernmental organizations
(IGOs), and international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) to
improve access to healthcare for marginalized groups, such as people who
use drugs and people living with HIV. Focus in Myanmar on these areas
is crucial. Myanmar has the second highest HIV prevalence in Southeast
Asia after Thailand, with an estimated prevalence of 0.7% of adults living with HIV.
Myanmar is one of 35 countries accounting for 90% of new cases of HIV.
Illicit drug use is pervasive, with an estimated 83,000 people using
opium or heroin in Myanmar. HIV prevalence among people who inject
drugs is 34.9%. Among sex workers, another stigmatized group, 5.4% have
Given these alarming statistics, and in line with global health and
development goals, in 2017, Myanmar pledged to end HIV as a public
health threat by 2030 through a robust educational program and universal
access to prevention, treatment, and care. The Myanmar government also plans to achieve ambitious 90-90-90 targets.
The 90-90-90 target means 90% of people living with HIV know their
status, 90% of people who know they are living with HIV have access to
treatment, and 90% of people in treatment have successfully suppressed
viral loads. Myanmar aims to complete the 90-90-90 plan by 2020.
Accurate data on people living with or at high risk of HIV is
essential for governments in order to address epidemics, yet
criminalized groups are frequently denied, ignored, or invisible in
national statistics and data collection efforts. Understanding HIV among
such as people who use drugs and sex workers, is essential for the
appropriate design of and access to effective prevention and treatment
To promote vital data collection by and for communities and to
promote effective government advocacy from findings, we implemented
workshops designed to expand the ability of CBOs to document rights
abuses, contribute to the local evidence base, and advocate for their
rights more effectively. This article highlights two recent examples
from our program. The first describes documentation and advocacy by
women living with HIV and sex workers, on access to healthcare including
sexual and reproductive services. The second describes community-led
data collection by people who use drugs on the impact of recent closures
of harm reduction drop-in centers (DICs) in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city.
Rights-Based Data Collection on Accessing Reproductive
Healthcare for Women Living with HIV and Sex Workers and Subsequent
A core component of our rights training program includes
building documentation skills to generate local evidence for advocacy.
We worked with Myanmar Positive Women’s Network (MPWN) and Right to
Health Action Myanmar (RHAM) to design and implement research on their
communities’ priority concerns. For RHAM, this was access to sexual and
reproductive health services for sex workers. For MPWN, this was
collecting rights-focused data about sex workers’ experiences accessing
health services at government healthcare facilities in Yangon. MPWN is a
country-wide organization dedicated to empowering women living with HIV
through training them to advocate for themselves to meet health,
economic, and social needs. RHAM is a Yangon-based CBO focused on
improving access to sexual and reproductive health services for sex
workers as well as fighting for improvement of policies that lead to
discrimination and violence against sex workers. It is imperative to
address the issues facing these groups because 5.4% of sex workers and 0.7% of women aged 15 and over are currently living with HIV.
Overall, women living with HIV reported negative experiences in
accessing treatment because of harassment from medical professionals and
staff, public exposure of their HIV status, and addition of unnecessary
treatment costs. In general, the interviewees reported feeling
comfortable accessing healthcare at National Aids Program treatment
centers. Interviewees reported easy access to condoms, but some sex
workers stated access was harder due to discrimination from doctors and
fear that their occupation would be disclosed to their families and
neighbors. However, interviewees reported having very little information
about preventing HIV transmission during pregnancy and childbirth.
Some women reported being shamed by healthcare workers for getting
pregnant, and they were not provided meaningful education on how to have
a healthy pregnancy with HIV. One interviewee reported forced
sterilization. Some reported further stigmatization because they were
also sex workers. Stigmatization sometimes took the form of having to
pay additional fees, such as cleaning costs and additional bedsheets,
when non-sex workers did not have to. Many respondents reported
emotional distress when medical providers or staff disclosed their HIV
status publicly. One interviewee stated that she “was traumatized
mentally. Because of them, my family knows that I am HIV-positive and I
faced a lot of family problems. The lab technician told my result to my
mother-in-law. My mother-in-law shouted at me in front of others, ‘you
are a prostitute. That’s why you got HIV. You deserve this.’”
The data gleaned from these interviews helped the CBOs construct
recommendations to township-level National AIDS Program team leaders
about the needs and requests of sex workers in Myanmar. It also enabled
the development of recommendations, such as nondiscrimination training
of medical staff and doctors, by women living with HIV to the National
Aids Program, INGOs, IGOs, NGOs, and the Ministry of Health and Sports.
Community-Oriented Data Collection on the Impact of Drop-in Centers for and Their Closures for People Who Use Drugs
We worked with five CBOs of people who use drugs in Myanmar to
understand their human rights and document barriers to evidence-based
harm reduction services. It is crucial to work with this population
because the Myanmar government chooses to address the epidemic, an
estimated 83,000 people who inject drugs, through prison sentences and
other punitive approaches by which numerous rights are violated.
The example below provides results from documentation by Youth
Empowerment Team (YET), a Yangon-based organization run by young people
who have drug use experience. YET focuses on harm reduction programs
and is dispelling the notion that harm reduction is equivalent to
encouraging drug use. Below, we report on community research
methodology and findings as reported by YET.
YET trained four peer educators who interviewed 27 people who use
drugs about access to harm reduction drop-in centers, where participants
receive services such as methadone therapy, condoms, harm reduction
techniques, clean injecting equipment, and referrals to methadone
treatment centers and places where they could receive naloxone, which is
administered to reverse opioid overdose. Interviewees reported feeling
comfortable and welcomed at DICs, perhaps because they are partially run
by peer drug users and did not experience as much shaming. They
emphasized how crucial methadone is to their recovery and well-being.
One interviewee stated “because of methadone therapy I can concentrate
more on my work.”
By October 2017, many of these DICs were forced to close due to a
lack of funding. This was devasting for people who use drugs in the
Yangon area. They reported difficulties in accessing methadone therapy
and overdose treatments. DICs were also important social settings for
drug users. One interviewee described how the DICs provided him with
psychological benefits he can no longer access, stating “it was
difficult to get counseling, which I really needed.” They felt
comfortable meeting friends and counselors with similar struggles. One
interviewee shared that he “lost a place to rest.” Based on these
findings, closure of DICs has been devastating for people who use drugs
in Myanmar. One interviewee stated “I don’t get needles
anymore, so I share with others. I don’t know where to [get] blood
testing. I am worried that I could be infected by blood-borne diseases. I
can’t control my desire to use drugs.”
However, inspired by needs articulated in interviews, YET has
developed a plan to create its own harm reduction program with
wide-ranging services such as clean needle distribution, risk-reduction
education, and testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
including HIV. YET encourages donors and the government to make efforts
to reopen centers like DICs for the crucial medical, psychological,
educational and social benefits they provided to vulnerable people who
use drugs in need. Notably however, CBOs such as YET engaging in
outreach programs face the possibility of arrest and harassment by
police. For the most meaningful change to occur in reduction of
drug-use-related harms including HIV and overdose, draconian laws
against drug use must be reformed and people who use drugs should be
Myanmar has made significant strides in the post-military junta era
in addressing healthcare, such as establishing Universal Health Care,
which includes a Basic Essential Access to Health Services Package.
It has also committed to addressing the HIV crisis through programs
such as comprehensive sex education for Myanmar’s youth population and a five-year strategic plan aimed to end HIV as a public health threat by 2030.
However, data from interviewees confirm that key populations still face
significant barriers to universal access to HIV services and other
rights. On April 29th, 2019, President Win Myint’s
spokesperson, U Zaw Htay, stated that Myanmar’s drug policy would be to
rehabilitate and reintegrate people who use drugs into society.
Reflecting a rehabilitative approach, Htay noted that people who use
drugs need assistance instead of punishment.
Gains are being made regarding HIV law and policy as well. A bill
designed to help people living with HIV, prevent new cases of HIV,
eliminate discrimination on the basis of HIV status, and increase access
to healthcare for people living with HIV, which has been in the
drafting process since 2014, is about to be finalized.
The political transition, the passage of progressive and transformative
bills, and the introduction of new bills can help create more robust
civil society, improved public health, and expand access to rights for
all in Myanmar.
The grassroots groups we supported through our Human Rights
Documentation and Advocacy Project continue to reap benefits from the
training provided. Based on recent feedback from interviewees, RHAM is
distributing condoms to sex workers in Yangon. It is also engaging in an
outreach program to interview more sex workers about their experiences
accessing healthcare for the prevention and treatment of HIV and STIs.
MPWN has worked closely with local service providers from the Myanmar
Ministry of Health and Sports. MPWN representatives presented their
interview findings, developed a regional strategy plan for improved
access to healthcare, and discussed how the Ministry and CBOs can
coordinate further in the future to meet the needs of women living with
HIV. MPWN also advocated to medical service providers to end
mistreatment of people living with HIV by medical personnel and
establish mechanisms to ensure appropriate interactions. YET has been
providing clean needles to people who use drugs and advocating to local
team leaders in the Ministry of Health and Sports for the need to reopen
spaces where people who use drugs are treated with dignity and can
avail themselves of evidence-based harm reduction interventions without
discrimination. In addition to advocacy at the local level, YET also
presented its interview findings at a National Harm Reduction forum in
Despite these critical lifesaving advancements, without investment in
groups like MPWN, RHAM, and YET, Myanmar’s traction and gains for its
civil society will wither, goals will not be met, and its people will
unnecessarily and unjustly suffer. Given the success of our rights
training programs, more groups than ever are requesting to take part. We
plan to expand our capacity to respond to increasing demands for our
training programs through staffing up and investing more in local
leadership and coalition-building to improve sustainable civil society
advocacy. For more information on how to help these groups continue to
perform their crucial work, please visit www.asiacatalyst.org or contact email@example.com.
UNAIDS defines key populations as “gay men and other men who have sex
with men, sex workers and their clients, transgender people, people who
inject drugs and prisoners and other incarcerated people as the main key
population groups. These populations often suffer from punitive laws or
stigmatizing policies, and they are among the most likely to be exposed
to HIV. Their engagement is critical to a successful HIV response
everywhere—they are key to the epidemic and key to the response.
Countries should define the specific populations that are key to their
epidemic and response based on the epidemiological and social context.
The term key populations at higher risk also may be used more broadly,
referring to additional populations that are most at risk of acquiring
or transmitting HIV, regardless of the legal and policy environment.”
UNAIDS Terminology Guidelines.” UNAIDS. 2015. Accessed June 19, 2019. https://www.unaids.org/sites/default/files/media_asset/2015_terminology_guidelines_en.pdf.
UNAIDS describes harm reduction as “a comprehensive package of
policies, programmes and approaches that seeks to reduce the harmful
health, social and economic consequences associated with the use of
psychoactive substances. The elements in the package are as follows:
needle and syringe programmes; opioid substitution therapy; HIV testing
and counselling; HIV care and antiretroviral therapy for people who
inject drugs; prevention of sexual transmission; outreach (information,
education and communication for people who inject drugs and their sexual
partners); viral hepatitis diagnosis, treatment and vaccination (where
applicable); and tuberculosis prevention, diagnosis and treatment. For
example, people who inject drugs are vulnerable to bloodborne infections
(such as HIV) if they use non-sterile injecting equipment. Therefore,
ensuring adequate supplies of sterile needles and syringes is a harm
reduction measure that helps to reduce the risk of blood-borne
This update has not been publicized yet. It was provided to us by our
partner, Community Network Consortium (CNC). CNC is a Myanmar national
consortium of nine community-based networks representing people living
with HIV and key populations. Its members have been involved in
consultations with government officials for current law reform
processes. CNC members have been co-authors of the new HIV bill titled Law related to People living with HIV and Affected Populations.
About the author
Julia K. Klein,
J.D. is a research fellow at Asia Catalyst. Klein is interested in
international human rights law and public interest law. Klein has
worked on matters such as health justice for low-income populations in
the United States, legal strategies for implementation of sex workers’
rights in Cambodia, and legal strategies for fighting human trafficking
in the Mediterranean. Klein received her Juris Doctor from Duke
University School of Law in 2018 and is currently awaiting admission to
the New York Bar.
Last month, Asia Catalyst joined 8,000 people from 165 countries at WomenDeliver2019,
the world’s largest conference on gender equality and the health,
rights, and wellbeing of girls and women. It was an exciting opportunity
to reconnect with colleagues, hear from practitioners about work across
the globe to empower girls and women, and learn about new funding
opportunities for grassroots advocacy.
Here are a few highlights from my experience at the Vancouver conference:
morning, I attended plenary sessions with extraordinary leaders who
have taken their personal experiences and turned them into movements to
address inequality. One of my favorites was “The Power of Movements,”
featuring Tarana Burke, founder of #MeToo, and Ailbhe Smyth, who led the successful vote to ensure women in Ireland can make their own decisions in pregnancy and access abortion.
Another exciting moment was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s announcement that Canada will increase its funding for women’s health globally, reaching $1.4 billion annually by 2023 – including $700 million earmarked for sexual and reproductive health initiatives, making Canada a leader when it comes to this kind of international aid.
I participated in sessions like Feminist Frontline: Strategies for Resistance and Change, whose activist speakers described their groundbreaking work disrupting and dismantling the patriarchy and feminist philanthropy; and Women’s Rights and LGBTIQ+ Rights: Stronger Together, masterfully moderated by Jessica Stern, Executive Director of OutRight Action International.
What was missing? Unfortunately, the voices of extremely marginalized women – sex workers, women who use drugs, trans and intersex women – were hardly present. I found only one session, hosted by Frontline AIDS, where women who use drugs talked about their work.
We know that work to promote gender equality and “leave no one behind,” as part of the Sustainable Development Goals, requires everyone, not just the privileged, well-resourced, and well-connected, to unite and strategize. Clearly,
new opportunities must be created for these groups, while encouraging
Women Deliver to widen its lens of who to feature in 2020. We will
advocate for more diverse representation, and support more of our
grassroots partners to participate next year.
The biggest benefit of Women Deliver, in my opinion, is the opportunity for quality, in-person interaction – an increasing rarity in this digital age – with friends, allies, and donors. Often, discussions and debates there spark new ideas and relationships that help us unite around work and strategies to advance women’s health. I was thrilled to connect with people from Asia Pacific Alliance for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, above, which we are a proud member of and puts sexual health rights on the agenda of policymakers.
Asia Catalyst advances women’s rights every day through our intensive human rights and advocacy programs that build leadership and give birth to grassroots organizations. To learn more about our work with marginalized women, visit www.asiacatalyst.org.
Last month, Asia Catalyst attended the 26th International Harm Reduction Conference in Porto, Portugal. Harm reduction, or mitigating the negative consequences of drug use and making sure responses are rooted in human rights and social justice, is at the heart of what we support.
Portugal was an apt destination for the meeting, as it has been a leader in drug policy reform. For the last 18 years, Portugal has not treated personal drug use as a criminal offense. Their approach favors a “Dissuasion Commission” made of social workers, psychologists, and legal experts who work together to assess patients and connect them with the right services. As a result, more people are voluntarily entering treatment and the “overdose deaths, HIV infections, problematic drug use, and incarceration for drug-related offenses have plummeted,” Drug Policy Alliance reports.
Conversely, in Asia where we work, most governments rely on punitive, repressive tactics that undermine public health in spite of massive HIV, HCV, and shamefully under-documented overdose epidemics. The majority of people in prison are there for nonviolent drug-related offenses, and 11 countries still use forced detention in spite of a pan-UN agency opposition to the approach.
In Porto, our staff – Khine Su Win, Myanmar Program Officer, Guo Miao, Senior Program Officer, and Shen Tingting, Director of Research, Advocacy, and Policy – joined sessions, learning about strategies and solutions conceived by organizations and allies around the world. In Kenya, for example, the Muslin Education and Welfare Association has an outreach team working with the courts and police to identify people who use drugs before court dates and refer them to treatment programs rather than incarceration. In South Africa, a new community program is screening people for substance use, and running the country’s first publicly funded harm reduction, opioid substitution therapy, and needle exchange program. And AIDS Care China is piloting take-home methadone for drug users and working with police to allay concerns that the drug will end up on the black market.
Not every country, of course, is taking such an expansive people-first approach.
On the last day of the conference there was a protest to draw attention to the thousands of people killed in the war on drugs in the Philippines, where 33 people are murdered each day and thousands more held in over-crowded prisons. Other Asian countries like Indonesia have followed suit with their own drug wars. But according to a recent International Drug Policy Consortium report, use of illegal drugs has gone up by nearly a third in the last decade – proof that the punitive approach is not working.
Khine presented on Asia Catalyst’s work in Myanmar with a youth-based organization, Youth Empowerment Team (YET), to document how closing harm reduction drop-in centers is affecting people who use drugs in Yangon. Khine has trained YET and other grassroots groups to interview people who inject drugs about the problems they now face as a result of dramatically limited access to health services, including clean injecting equipment and HIV and hepatitis testing and counseling. YET’s research showed that the drop-in centers were “a lifeline” for hundreds of people now grappling with growing isolation, and without a safe space to foster healthy ways of coping.
The takeaway: in Myanmar and across the globe, there is an urgent need to invest in and expand community-run spaces where people who use drugs can feel safe and receive essential harm reduction services, including naloxone treatment for overdose prevention and support. And support directly-affected groups with the tools and resources to advocate for an enabling legal environment where they can thrive.
For International Women’s Day, Asia Catalyst caught up with Leta Hong Fincher, who just released Betraying Big Brother, about the burgeoning feminist movement in China.
We asked her how activists have, against the odds, sparked a mainstream movement. She explains what women are fighting for in China today, and how, under the current government crackdown, the research she did just a few years ago would be almost impossible.
Leta gave a great interview. You can buy her book here – and support Asia Catalyst as we launch our 2019 programs for women living with HIV, trans women, sex workers, and others by clicking here.
Here’s to all the bold inspiring women out there! Let your power shine this month!
What made you write this book?
I knew one of the Feminist Five before they were jailed. I’d met her in 2013 through Feminist Voices, this website that ended up being banned last year. I was really worried when the five women were jailed.
When the authorities released the women after a few months, and they were on de facto house arrest, I did my first interview in November 2015. Then I went to the different cities where they were and ended up interviewing all of the Feminist Five and a whole bunch of other feminist activists. I thought their stories were so important and they were being erased.
How did you come up with the name Betraying Big Brother?
One of the Feminist Five, Wei Tingting, wrote a brief online account of her experiences the first day she was arrested. Security agents confiscated her glasses and she couldn’t see anything… she’s basically blind without her glasses. They confiscated her glasses and coat and snow boots. There was no heat in the middle of winter and it was below freezing. She describes being overcome by the feeling of terror and disorientation.
Then she put her ear up against the wall of the cell and started to hear the voices of some of her feminist sisters through the walls. So she yelled out to them, and started singing, and one of them started singing back…. Imagine these women singing to each other and letting each other know they were all in there together. She regained her sense of hope and defiance. And she describes that feeling as “the joy of betraying big brother.”
What are the biggest issues for women in China today?
These activists have been active for years, standing in the subway in Shanghai saying “I should be able to wear what I want but you can’t harass me.” Walking down the streets in Beijing wearing white wedding gowns covered in fake red blood to draw attention to intimate partner violence. Conceiving of “Occupy Men’s Toilets” to draw attention to the fact there are never enough women’s toilets.
Sexual harassment and sexual violence have been a big theme. That’s why the Feminist Five were arrested: they were planning to hand out anti-sexual harassment stickers on subways and busses.
If you look at what’s happening today, there’s a lot of ordinary women starting to speak out about sexual harassment and rape. It’s China’s version of the #MeToo movement.
You spoke about the one-child policy. On the face of it, that seems positive giving freedom back to women – but there’s this been pressure going the other way now?
I’ve been writing about this for years, the government pushing single, educated women to get married. It started a propaganda campaign using the term “leftover women” to describe single women in their mid-20s or older… trying to shame or stigmatize or insult them into getting married.
Even before the government adopted its official two-child policy, you see this intensification of propaganda pushing women into having two children instead of one. It’s a 180-degree turnaround from the previous 35 years.
This is not about giving women freedom to make choices about how many children they have, warning educated Chinese women that they need to hurry up and get married and have two children before 30. Telling them that, after 30, you’re much more likely to have birth defects.
Also, there is an increase in gender discrimination. A lot of employers blatantly advertise they’re not looking for women, only men. If they agree to interview women, they ask young women, “Are you married? Have you had a child? When are you having your first child? When are you having your second child?” Employers don’t want to have to deal with maternity leave. There are a lot of cases where pregnant women are either fired or pushed out.
There is also increasing gender discrimination for women for applying to university programs: they make the women score higher than men to admit them.
You say that the feminists represent a threat to the regime. Can you explain?
It’s not that the feminists themselves want to threaten the party in any way; they don’t. They’re not overtly criticizing the Communist Party in any way, that’s why it was such a shock when the Feminist Five were arrested and jailed in 2015.
The party itself views young women as a threat for many reasons. One is that they’re organized. They’re in a lot of cities across China. They have popular messages that resonate with so many women across China, especially women who’ve gone to college. But high school girls are also starting to speak out more about gender equality.
The Communist Party at the elite level is entirely men. The propaganda today is aggressively pushing traditional gender norms. The man is supposed to be the head of the household and in charge of making money. And the woman is supposed to be the dutiful wife and mother. The propaganda also shows Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, as being a hyper masculine strong man ruling over all these male-dominated families. State media emphasizes that everybody needs to play “their proper role” in the family hierarchy.
The message of the feminists is the complete opposite. Young women don’t want to just get married and have babies. They want to have careers. They have dreams. They may want to further their education. They may want to go or work abroad. They don’t want to just be a reproductive tool for the state.
And the backdrop is a demographic situation of dramatically falling birth rates in China, a severely aging population, and a shrinking workforce. The Communist Party thinks these trends are a threat to its survival.
It doesn’t make any sense economically if you look at the importance of working women. China’s neighbors, like Japan and South Korea – those countries are grappling with similar demographic problems, but they’re not responding the same way. They’re trying to come up with ways to boost women’s participation in the workforce. But the Chinese government is the opposite. It sees the subjugation of women as critical to its own political survival.
What it is like to be a women’s activist in China today? How is it different from Japan or South Korea, or here in the States?
It’s very, very difficult. China is an incredibly hostile environment for social movement organizing of any kind. A lot of these feminist activists are persecuted regularly. There are some who are in detention today, who used feminism to call for more rights for workers. There are quite a lot in detention today and we don’t know where they are.
Other activists are routinely being harassed by security agents or police, who may come to their door and interrogate them. The police often go to the landlords of the activists and say, “you have to stop renting your apartment to those troublemaking women.” Then landlords will be forced to kick out their tenants, so a lot of these activists have to keep moving around.
They also pressure the parents and relatives of young activists to “keep their daughters in line,” “tell their daughters to stop making trouble because you’re making my life as a parent difficult.” That’s one of the most insidious forms of control.
The logistical difficulty – if you’re an ordinary woman and you want to write something on social media about your experience with sexual harassment – it’s often censored and deleted. It’s very hard for most women to go to a news outlet and have her story written up.
Because there’s no independent media in China; it’s fundamentally all controlled by the state.
You’d think in an environment that hostile, it would be impossible to get a women’s rights movement going and keep it alive. But here we are, almost four years since the jailing of the Feminist Five, and the women’s rights movement is still alive. It has not been crushed. That alone is a testament to the courage and the resilience of these young feminist activists.
Women’s rights activists have joined forces with workers, and quite a few prominent activists are queer. That’s another reason the women’s movement is perceived to be a threat.
You’ve gotten shout-outs from Time Magazine, Vanity Fair, the BBC on this book. What do you hope people will take away from it?
For people who don’t know China, I hope they can still read the book and be really inspired. Because we’re at a critical moment in world history. In the United States, our democratic institutions are coming under unprecedented assault, so we have our own battle to fight in the US to preserve our democracy. And the US president has emboldened dictators around the world; he openly admires these dictators, praises them.
There’s a rise in authoritarianism around the world. The United States is no longer playing the moral leadership role, so it’s very easy for these other dictators – China and Xi Jinping and Russia and Vladimir Putin – to step in and increase their authoritarian power. You see that in so many countries around the world. It’s a very dangerous time.
One of the ways we can learn from China is that, even though China is the most powerful authoritarian regime and the second largest economy in the world… even in China, there are these young women starting a movement that is confounding authoritarian leadership.
It’s very difficult for China’s rulers to figure out how to quash the movement. There’s a lot of promise and a lot of lessons to be learned.
I think feminism is very important in fighting authoritarianism. You see it in China because feminism resonates with millions of women. Their daily lives are affected by all these problems – gender discrimination, sexual violence. A key to fighting the rise of authoritarianism globally is supporting grassroots activists, supporting gender equality, supporting women’s rights, supporting women’s political participation. Not enough people recognize that link.