As a young girl, Htar Htar was taught to be subservient and submissive, constantly reminded by her father that she didn’t have choices in life because she is a woman. Like many men of an older generation in Myanmar, he believed women were lowly regardless of their religion, education or socio-economic background, she says. The sentiments inside her home reflected those of wider Myanmarese society, with many people believing that a woman’s menstrual cycle makes her body dirty and impure.
But in 2008, when Htar Htar was 37, she joined 10 other women from various NGOs for some informal sessions with an Israeli sex therapist. The therapist told them about the sexual response cycle – the four phases of sexual arousal – and explained the connection between sexuality, emotion and psychology. Their conversation challenged everything Htar Htar had ever been taught about the female body.
Determined to pass on what she had learned and help other women discover and discuss their sexuality, Htar Htar founded the charity Akhaya Women, which translates to “Women Are the Key to Change” in Myanmarese. She invites women to gather and talk about sex, the female body and reproductive health. At Akhaya’s office in Yangon, there is a full-length mirror hanging in the women’s bathroom, which Htar Htar, 45, says is there so visitors can inspect their bodies freely.
Htar Htar’s devotion to female empowerment motivated her to spearhead the hugely successful Whistle for Help campaign in 2012, which involved giving out whistles to women on buses and in other public areas around the capital so they could call for help in case of sexual assault. And last year, she launched a “She-smith” program to train women from low-income backgrounds to make women’s jewelry, an occupation traditionally reserved for men. “We are determined to break such stereotypes,” she says. “If women can wear jewelry, why can’t we make it?”
Women & Girls spoke with Htar Htar about discovering her body, challenging taboos and talking sex with nuns.
Women & Girls: What did the sex therapist teach you that was so enlightening?
Htar Htar: She talked in detail about the physical and emotional changes that are triggered in a woman’s body and that a woman’s ability to experience pleasure is also a sign of liberation and joy. She also educated us about female anatomy and what causes the menstrual cycle. She made me realize that prejudices and attitudes toward women are based on unfounded myths and not on scientific knowledge.
Women & Girls: How are you sharing that experience with other women?
Htar Htar: In Myanmar, terms like “gender,” “female empowerment” and “peer education” are relatively new. Most women-led programs focus on recruiting and training women to learn livelihood skills, whereas my focus is more about tackling the problem at its root. There is no emphasis on meetings and skills development in my programs. The idea is to bring about a gradual behavior and social change by addressing attitudes and cultural barriers from the outset.
Women & Girls: What do you talk about with women, and how do they react?
Htar Htar: During the first session of the workshop, we try to break the ice by talking about attitudes toward sexuality in their own community. They giggle, they laugh, the discussion becomes animated and they open up.
In the second session, we talk about reproductive health and sexual organs, and then, keeping sexuality at the core, we open the discussion and make them reflect on myths, practices and beliefs in their community.
We teach them that sexuality is not just about sex and sexual organs. It is also about orientation, health, empowerment and how you see yourself. For most women, [the workshop] is their first experience of learning about their bodies and they show a lot of interest. There is a growing consensus among women, and even men now, that sex education should be a part of the school curriculum.
But sometimes there is a backlash, too. Some girls are advised by their boyfriends not to go to Akhaya Women.
Women & Girls: Tell us about the Whistle for Help campaign.
Htar Htar: It was the first women’s action campaign in Myanmar and until then we didn’t know what an action campaign looked like. Harassment of women in buses had become an accepted norm and nobody was doing anything to stop it. I was determined to break the silence, as I strongly feel women have a right to travel safely, and the tendency of men to see women as objects of sex had to be confronted.
With the help of 366 volunteers, we randomly distributed 30,000 whistles to women at bus stands and inside buses in Yangon.
The campaign was risky as the political reforms had just started in Myanmar and it was still illegal to have an assembly of more than five people in public places. So, to avoid getting into trouble, we planned our campaign meticulously and ran it on Saturdays. Our volunteers had just an hour to strategically select the crowded bus routes to be able to distribute the whistles to the most number of women.
Women & Girls: What is your vision for the next few years?
Htar Htar: We currently work with around 3,000 women across Myanmar. We would like to scale it up across the country in the next few years.
We also work with key community figures, including religious leaders, police and government officials. We impress on these groups that a woman’s position in society cannot be enhanced unless her sexuality and other rights are protected. I am pleased to say that recently we had a very positive sexuality dialogue workshop with women parliamentarians. At the end of it, we highlighted various loopholes in our laws on rape and crimes against women. We urged the parliamentarians to adopt a more comprehensive definition of rape to prevent and protect women and girls from violence.
Religious leaders are often the first point of contact for women who face violence in the community. In the past, violence in the family wasn’t taken seriously and women were asked to compromise, but now religious leaders understand it’s a crime and they provide victims with counseling and help them file a complaint with the police.
Recently we had some nuns attend some of our sexual dialogue workshops – so, you can see we are reaching all types of people.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.