A couple of weeks ago I read a story by Kathleen Parker about a woman from Burma, Zin Mar Aung who was placed in solitary confinement for trying to organize students in 1999. Zin Mar Aung is just one of four Burmese women who are visiting the U.S. this month for leadership training, sponsored by Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Women program, in partnership with the George W. Bush Institute, the McCain Institute and the Meridian International Center.
For her 'crime' of publicly reading a collection of revolutionary poems, Zin Mar Aung was arrested and imprisoned. For eleven years she lived in 8-by-8-foot cell alone with nothing but a small water jug and a 'sink'for waste. Once a day, for 15-minutes, she was allowed to take a cold bath in a communal tub. She and the other female prisoners had no shoes and no access to personal hygiene necessities such as sanitary napkins.
Finally, after the eleven years of imprisonment, she was let go. She went back to school, earning a degree in botany, and is now in law school, majoring in international law. She established the Yangon School of Political Science and co-founded Rainfall, an organization that supports empowerment of women.
Zin Mar is working with three other women to stop the culture that suppresses women in so many parts of the world. Hla Hla Yee is a mother, an attorney and former political prisoner. She provides counseling to marginalized women. Shunn Lei Swe Yee brings young people together to work for a more civil society. Ma Nilar OO worked for the International Red Cross for 18 years, primarily as an advocate for political prisoners. Her more recent efforts have focused on finding jobs for at-risk girls and young women. Female teens in Burma are often sold by their parents to men who value virgins. There is even a term in Burma for the breaking in of a virgin, “to open a new envelope.”
It is hard for those of us who live in a free society that has more equality between sexes to imagine what the lives of women must be like in these other cultures. Rape, assault, harassment, and the possibility of imprisonment are real fears that too many women live with every day.
That is what Zin Mar and many other women are fighting to change. That is also why Zin Mar received the 1012 International Women of Courage Award from Michelle Obama and then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in March.
I join them in saluting Zin Mar, and all the courageous women working for an end to the suppression of women.