Not bad for a country with zero non-offensive words for “vagina.”
Zin Min Thu was in her mid 20s when she finally discovered the truth about the complex function of her vagina. “I started living my life—I found the spice of life,” she says with a laugh. “I got a lot of sexuality knowledge [and] I found out about that part of my body, at 24 years old.”
She was working in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, when she attended a sex ed workshop that would prove to be revelatory. Run by local non-governmental organization Akhaya Women, the workshops—designed for adults—are something of an outlier in deeply conservative Myanmar. The workshops’ content goes beyond standard sex ed class descriptions of reproductive organs—the course materials are designed to provoke frank discussions of sex: Workbooks handed out to each participant include pictures of veiny dildos, arousal charts and nude dolls with exaggerated proportions.
Like Min Thu, most of the women who join Akhaya Women’s sexual empowerment program have rarely, if ever, spoken frankly about sex with anyone. “In our culture in Myanmar, men know about sex,” says the NGO’s founder, Htar, who says men’s informal sex education tends to happen early, from peer groups and family members. “For women, there is no education, no discussion about sexuality within the family or with friends.”
Many women are thus wary of opening up to strangers about this most delicate of topics. “Even if they come, they are not sure why they are coming and [are] shy,” says Htar, explaining that such discussions are seen as taboo for women.
Min Thu is now actively working to eradicate this taboo: The 28-year-old became a workshop co-facilitator, and was later promoted to lead the program. Before she begins a session with a new group of women—who range in age and socio-economic backgrounds, and are drawn from all sections of Myanmar’s ethnically diverse society—they must first tackle a major hurdle. There is no polite word for the female sex organ in Burmese, the country’s official language. Even medical professionals revert to a euphemistic phrase that translates as ‘woman’s body.’
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“We start asking, ‘What do you call a vagina in your language?’ and there’s several ethnicities, so we ask them these words [so they can] be familiar with them. Because they never talk about this organ in their lives,” Min Thu says.
Next on the agenda is sketching a vagina, an assignment that usually acts as an icebreaker once the drawings—often anatomically inaccurate—take shape, according to Htar.
From these inauspicious beginnings, the women’s views on sexuality undergo a radical transformation. By the end of the two-day workshop, Min Thu says, they are even discussing ways to ensure they reach climax in bed. “They do not know about orgasming [to begin with], but when we start talking about sexuality, they start asking, ‘If I do not get an orgasm, but my husband does [have an] orgasm, what can I do?'”
But this is sexual awakening with a purpose that goes beyond personal fulfilment. The course aims to give women the confidence to question entrenched practices that exacerbate gender inequalities.
The United Nations last year called violence against women and girls in Myanmar a “silent emergency.” According to a 2016 report by CEDAW Myanmar, some 700 rapes are reported to police annually, but the true figures are likely to be much higher due to the social stigma surrounding rape and difficulties dealing with untrained, insensitive police officers.
And while a bill on the National Prevention of Violence against Women has been in the works since 2013, marital rape is not a crime—which the UNFPA said “testifies to the high level of acceptance in the country of violence against women not only in society but also in the law”—and domestic violence is rarely addressed publicly.
A widely-held belief in Myanmar—which is predominantly Buddhist, but also Christian and Muslim—is that men have innate masculine power, known as hpoun, which must be ‘protected’ by washing their clothes separately from women’s underwear and skirts. An idea, the women activists explain, that is connected to one simple, erroneous idea: That menstrual blood is dirty.
“This concept is very rooted in our lives, and every woman has that attitude,” she says. “And they tell themselves that they are inferior to men—and it’s because of this concept.”
Htar describes her realization at age 35 that menstrual blood was not “dirty or rotten” as a what spurred her to establish Akhaya Women. “I felt so empowered,” she says. “From there, I wanted to see if other women felt the same as me.” She says that many others did, and told her they felt confident, empowered and no longer like second-class citizens.
The culturally subversive notion that menstrual blood is not dirty is woven throughout the course, along with an emphasis on “the power of the uterus,” Min Thu says, helping to instill a sense of pride among the women in their bodies and in themselves.
This, says Htar, is one of the outcomes she hoped to achieve. “When you look on the surface, it doesn’t seem like it is a problem,” she says. But the consequences of a lack of sex ed in Myanmar are huge, she says, causing gender inequalities that lead to women being shut out of familial and political decision-making processes, as well as being subject to harassment and sexual violence.
To date, a few thousand women have completed Akhaya Women’s sexual empowerment program—a drop in the ocean in a nation of about 55 million—but Min Thu and her activists are already causing ripples in society that they hope will turn into waves.
Moe Moe, 38, a mother of three from Yangon who attended one of Akhaya Women’s workshops, says that not only did she gain practical knowledge from the course—such as what to teach her daughter about sex—she’s also gained the confidence to speak her mind in public. “I can [recognize] violence and harassment, and help to prevent it,” she says, adding that she now leads a discussion group on women’s rights in her neighborhood.
“Everyone puts blame on the victims. When people gather and discuss sexual harassment or violence, they say it’s the fault of the victim or the survivor. I stand and tell [them] what I know—that it’s not right,” she says.