HLAING TOWNSHIP, Rangoon — Dressed in the standard pink robes of a Burmese nun, Nan Tha Zin Oo speaks softly when she remembers her childhood in northern Shan State. “When I was in the village, in the media most of the important people were men. I didn’t like being a girl. I wanted to be a boy,” says the 14-year-old.
After moving to Rangoon, she joined a program two years ago with weekly after-school peer groups for marginalized girls in Burma’s urban outskirts and rural communities who were at risk of school dropout, early marriage, domestic violence and exploitive labor.
The program, Colorful Girls Circles, is run by a community-based organization known as Girl Determined and includes discussions about decision-making, self-confidence, friendship, and cultural and religious differences. More than 1,300 girls between the ages of 12 and 17 participate in the peer groups every week, meeting in the outskirts of Rangoon and Mandalay, as well as the cities of Sagaing and Monywa in northwest Burma, according to Brooke Zobrist, technical director of the organization.
“We also plan to expand in 2014 to some areas of Shan State and Mon State,” she says.
Win Win Nwe, a 13-year-old from Rangoon’s Hlaing Thar Yar Township, joined the program two years ago. “We talk about sexual violence, body image and stress management,” she says.
Sitting beside her, Nan Tha Zin Oo, the nun, says the peer groups have altered her perspective. “I saw that women could form organizations and achieve things like men,” she says. “I knew the strength of being a girl and I was proud.”
In Burma, women face barriers to employment and health care, and they remain underrepresented in politics, with men holding about 95 percent of seats in Parliament. Amid high rates of poverty, adolescent girls say they feel pressured to get a job or stay at home to care for their younger siblings, rather than attending classes.
Last week Girl Determined held its third annual conference in Rangoon’s Hlaing Township, with a focus on girls’ rights in education. About 420 girls, including over 100 young nuns, attended the all-day event, while more than 800 girls went to a conference in Mandalay the week before.
Out of the conference came a statement about gender discrimination in education. Drafted since March by a group of girls from the program, the statement describes the pressure to leave school due to financial concerns, and it calls on the government to provide free education through high school.
Burma’s public schools do not charge tuition, but the education sector remains largely underfunded after decades of military rule, and parents typically pay for books, uniforms and school building repairs. Largely due to these expenses, about one-third of school-aged children in the country never start school, according to Unesco.
During his first month in office, President Thein Sein urged lawmakers to increase student enrollment, and the government has set a goal to implement a free, compulsory primary education system by 2015, although the national budget for education remains limited compared to spending on defense.
“Many girls stay home from school to help take care of their siblings—boys don’t do that,” says Than Than Oo, 14, who wants to attend university but worries she may not get a chance. “I need to take care of my family,” she says.
The girls’ statement also called for legal changes to allow more women to be accepted to medical schools and technical colleges, as female students are currently required to score higher on these entrance exams than their male counterparts.
“In state [basic education] schools, we cannot see very clear inequality, but at university level more boys study professional subjects,” says Biak Chin Mowe, from Irrawaddy Division, who hopes to attend an engineering school when she graduates from high school.
The Burma government reduced the exam requirements for male applicants to medical school because women were earning higher scores and women doctors outnumbered men doctors. But in engineering schools and other technical colleges, male students are in the majority.
During a question-and-answer session at the conference, the teenage girls asked questions such as, “Why don’t they give girls and boys equal rights?” and “Why can’t a woman become president?”
Some said opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi had inspired them since she was released from house arrest under the former regime in 2010 and joined Parliament last year.
“My father always listened to the radio and talked about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” says Ma Zar Chyi Win, referring to the democracy icon with a title of respect. The 14-year-old lists Suu Kyi among her top three role models, after her mother and a teacher at school. “I hope she will become the president of Myanmar. She is getting older, but she is still strong. And she can do anything like a man.”