Postcard from Porto

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.

With great thanks,

On International Women’s Day, our Q&A w Feminist Author Leta Hong Fincher

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.


What else?

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.

Call for Applications for 2018-19 Myanmar Program

Asia Catalyst is now accepting applications from community-based organizations (CBOs) in Myanmar for 2018-19 program. The program will support participating CBOs to implement community-led activities to address challenges their communities face. Any CBOs that work on human rights issues among marginalized populations and want to strengthen documentation and advocacy skills are invited to apply. Our program will help CBOs to develop existing or plan new advocacy strategies and campaigns to address issues facing their communities.

Please fill out this application form and submit it to not later than 30 November 2018.

Asia Catalyst မွ Human Rights Documentation and Advocacy Program 2018

အတြ ္ လ ္တြဲလုပ္ေဆာင္ရန္ လူထု အေျချပဳ အဖြဲ႕ သစ္မ်ား ေခၚယူလ ွ် ္ရွိရာ
ေလ ွ်ာ ္လႊာ ပိတ္သည့္ ရ ္ ို နို၀င္ဘာ ၁၅ ရ ္ေန႕ မွ နို၀င္ဘာ ၃၀ ရ ္ေန႕သို႕ တိုးျမွင့္
လို ္ေၾ ာင္း အေၾ ာင္း ၾ ားအပ္ပါတယ္။
လုူ႕ အခြင့္အေရး အသိပညာ၊ လူ႕အခြင့္အေရး ခ်ိဳးေဖာ ္မႈ ျဖစ္စဥ္မ်ားအား မွတ္တမ္းတင္ျခင္း
ႏွင့္ ေျပာင္းလဲမႈအတြ ္ အေရးဆို တင္ျပေတာင္းဆိုျခင္း စသည့္ စြမ္းရည္မ်ား ို ျမွင့္တင္လို
သည့္ လူထုအေျချပဳ အဖြဲ႕မ်ား နွင့္  ြန္ယ ္မ်ား ို ပါ၀င္ေလ ွ်ာ ္ထားရန္

Postcard from the International AIDS Conference Khine Su Win, Program Officer – Myanmar


The 22nd International AIDS conference was organized from 23-27 July 2018 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. I was awarded a partial scholarship to present my work in a poster presentation, ‘Human Rights Documentation and Advocacy Program in Myanmar: Ending discrimination against PLHIV and key populations through scaling up their capacity for self-advocacy.”

I also had the chance to interpret for Aye Myanmar Association (AMA), one of our partners in Myanmar, so they could participate in the Global Network of Sex Work Projects’ pre-conference meeting and present on their legal project for sex workers in the conference’s community space, the “Global Village” (GV). I consider promoting the participation of grassroots groups to be an essential part of my work and I also learned a lot. At the pre-meeting, sex workers activists strategized on how best to use the conference for effective advocacy. They spent time identifying their key issues, preparing advocacy messages, discussing at which sessions sex workers could acquire important new knowledge, and determining protest routes where they would be most visible to key policy makers.  

As this was my first time attending a global AIDS conference, I was interested to participate in as many sessions and events as I could. I was impressed by the conference’s attention to the inclusion of diverse participants, including participants with disabilities. For example, plenary sessions were simultaneously presented in sign language. Rooms were easily wheelchair accessible. Volunteers were everywhere to provide directions if you got lost. There was always a variety of presentations and events to choose from at any given time, from Global Village activities to actions and formal presentations. People who did not register for the conference could still access the Global Village and networking zones for free, where community networks, INGOs, and NGOs opened booths and created a safe space to discuss relevant in-country community issues such as violent policing practices towards female and transgender sex workers, legal and paralegal services for sex workers, and the health impact of punitive laws. I particularly liked that the GV and networking zone were used for cross-country learning on challenges and effective approaches to ensuring enabling environments for key populations.


I was impressed that freedom of expression was fully respected and that protests and actions were allowed even when interrupting sessions. Communities made use of all spaces as advocacy channels to raise their voice directly towards politicians and policymakers in attendance. For example, sex workers activists disrupted a meeting of Parliamentarians leading the flight against AIDS, including representatives from US Congress, UK, and the Netherlands, to demand decriminalization and a recognition of the rights of sex workers in order to successfully combat the HIV epidemic. Sex worker activists called on the US congresswoman to move forward on decriminalization of sex work in different states. She committed to work together with sex workers to remove punitive laws for sex work in United States.


I work on human rights and advocacy in Myanmar, so I mainly attended sessions about law and policy reform, criminalization and discrimination, and community engagement and advocacy. There is a gross lack of data, including in my region, and just a few examples of progressive policy reform with true community participation. I wanted to hear how others, in the face of shrinking civil society space and restricted funding, are overcoming these barriers to support an effective HIV response.

After six days at IAC, I realized that, in many countries, political commitment and accountability among stakeholders is still limited compared with what is needed for a truly sustainable, multi-sectoral, integrated HIV response. Safe space for community engagement is too often restricted and threatened by the powers that be.

In Myanmar, communities are involved in the process of reforming some our punitive laws and policies towards more rights- based ones that reflect their needs, and I am proud that Asia Catalyst is supporting them to do that. I am also gratified to have joined the global activist community in Amsterdam to learn lessons from countries with effective policies and laws and effective community participation, as we work towards those same goals here at home.

Farewell interview with AC staffer, Jebli Shrestha

Asia Catalyst shares insights and parting words from our beloved team member, Jebli Shrestha, Bangkok-based Documentation and Advocacy Program Manager since 2015.


What motivated you in your work to support human rights documentation and advocacy capacity among grassroots groups in Southeast Asia?

It is the community-based organizations (CBOs) and their communities that inspired and motivated me. Our partner CBOs work with and represent communities at the local and national levels. They have an excellent understanding of community needs, and are passionate about promoting and protecting their rights.

They effectively use their limited resources to improve the lives of their communities. Many volunteer their time to provide services, share experiences, and provide all kinds of other support. Limited resources have not stopped them from doing this work, and this inspires me to provide whatever support for their advocacy work that we can.

Lived experience makes communities their own best advocates. Their stories of resilience in the face of surmounting socio-political, legal, and cultural barriers should inform national and global policymaking. I was motivated to help them build skills in documenting these experiences and use that evidence to shape policy.

My work at Asia Catalyst enabled me to become part of the community, in the sense that our partners become my friends. They have repeatedly expressed how much safer they feel in sharing their stories in the spaces we have created. We have a good capacity building model, and our curriculum and facilitation style allow for sharing experiences.

You were the architect of Asia Catalyst’s Regional Rights Training Program. Tell us some highlights/outcomes of that program, and how its legacy lives on!

The Regional Rights Training (RRT) program brought together grassroots groups from four countries: Cambodia, China, Myanmar, and Vietnam. We created an online space for the CBOs to share their work. In the beginning, it took much effort for us to encourage people to share their work. They would send it directly to me, and with their permission I would share it with in the group platform. But gradually, people started sharing and, before long, didn’t need me to facilitate these conversations. They gave input across countries, unprompted by us. Later, the participants told us that it was the first time they learned so much about the work of other CBOs in different countries. Cultivating this knowledge and experience sharing across groups was one of the highlights of the program.

The RRT program also allowed for joint projects. Successful join documentation and advocacy projects were carried out by CBOs in Cambodia and Myanmar. Though the financial contributions we provided were relatively small, they supported the CBOs’ ongoing advocacy work in tangible ways. Another highlight from the RRT Program was the expansion of our documentation and advocacy training work in Myanmar, where we now have a staff person and additional partner groups. Finally, the personal friendships I developed through this work with community actors and advocates will remain with me wherever I go.

The political, fiscal, and legal landscapes have changed over the years that you have worked in Southeast Asia. How have those changes affected our grassroots partners?

Some of our CBO partners in Cambodia and Vietnam have ceased operations as a result; others are running completely by volunteers. There is also fear, among activists receiving support from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, that the Fund’s retreat and consequent need to depend on their national government for support will negatively impact human rights advocacy work, particularly for marginalized and criminalized groups.

The region’s increasing intolerance of rights, such as freedom of expression or association, and its growing religious extremism affecting the rights of women and sexual minority groups, will also affect our advocacy to end stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV, LGBT people, people who use drugs, and sex workers. On the other hand, I think there are opportunities. A growing number of countries are liberalizing their policies on same-sex relations and enacting other anti-discrimination policies. While the “war on drugs” approach by political leaders in countries like the Philippines or Indonesia to score support, countries such as Myanmar and Thailand seem to be slowly steering towards more rights-based drug policy.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing Asia Catalyst’s partners? What can be done?

It is necessary in this hostile environment to strengthen alliances across movements: Not just for the HIV community, but the women’s rights movement and other so-called mainstream human rights movements as well. Our issues are interconnected, and I think we need more collaboration. Groups and nations that are regressive on women’s and minority rights are getting ever stronger in traditional human rights spaces like the United National. It is more necessary than ever for us all to make an effort to link in and build solidarity and support across movements.

I also feel that, perhaps due to perceived donor interests, our politics as activists in general have been diluted; community issues are deprioritized and depoliticized in favor of appeasing the donors. With the changing fiscal landscape, perhaps local community issues and ways of addressing them will be re-prioritized.

Any great lesson(s) or other takeaway you have learned in this work, from partners or otherwise?

Communities know best. Invest in grassroots communities. Even through hostile financial, legal, and political climates, communities will try to find ways to fix their issues. Communities are resilient and resourceful, as perhaps for them, there is no other choice. We must always remember that our role is to support what they know is best for them.

We know you will move on to do great things. What do you hope for your future?

I don’t know about great things 🙂 but I would like to continue my work in supporting community resilience in protecting and promoting rights advocacy work. Someday, I hope I become a confident and eloquent advocate for non-discrimination and equality for all people in the region.