A Safe Haven for Abused Refugee Women in Thailand
On her 16th birthday, Ngelay* was told by her mother that she had arranged for her to be married. The prospective groom, a much older man living in Malaysia, had already sent 50 grams of gold to Ngelay’s mother as a down-payment. The remaining amount was to be paid when the bride arrived in Malaysia from her home in northern Thailand.
“I didn’t want this,” Ngelay said in a trembling voice after she sought refuge in a shelter for battered and trafficked women in the northern Thai city of Mae Sot. “I’m too young to marry. And I was scared to go to a stranger.”
Ngelay, who left her home in Myanmar for Thailand last year with her mother, had reason to be frightened. A few years earlier, her mother had sold Ngelay’s then 14-year-old sister into marriage. Her whereabouts are still unknown. When arrangements were being made for Ngelay’s departure, her 25-year-old brother intervened.
“He refused to let the same thing happen to me as happened to my sister,” Ngelay said. “He took me away to hide from my mother.”
Ngelay is being sheltered by Social Action for Women (SAW), an organization that helps survivors of rape, domestic violence, trafficking and other abuse. Housed in an unassuming white two-story house, SAW has assisted around 8,000 women since it was established in 2000. Through SHIELD, a program that helps Burmese refugees and migrants fleeing conflict and economic hardship in their home country obtain education and health care, the International Rescue Committee is supporting SAW with funding and the training of its staff in skills such as bookkeeping and financial management.
“I feel safe here, but I’m still depressed about all that has happened,” Ngelay said. “I would like to return home to Myanmar and become a Buddhist nun. I have always wanted this, but this situation has inspired me even more.”
In the meantime, SAW is helping Ngelay and other women like her with schooling, vocational training and counseling. It is also helping Burmese women living in Thailand find jobs, mostly in Mae Sot’s large garment industry.
“Many of the women here have been abandoned by their husbands and are unable to support themselves financially,” said Lin Dar, who runs SAW’s six safe houses in the Mae Sot area. “Frequently they end up prostituting themselves or fall prey to unscrupulous trafficking networks, which send women to different locations in Thailand or abroad, to work in sweatshops or in the sex industry.”
The majority of Burmese women who end up at the safe houses lack documents which would allow them to stay in Thailand. They are among some two million Burmese in Thailand -- more than half under age 18. In Mae Sot, a city of 120,000 people that shares a border with Myanmar, many Burmese are living illegally with their children.
Regardless of their legal status, Burmese families in Thailand are often unable to attend Thai schools. SAW helps Burmese children enroll in special schools that are not formally recognized by the Thai government and are entirely funded by aid groups such as the IRC.
Women sometimes stay in a safe house for a month, but more frequently end up living there for up to two years. SAW also shelters some 200 orphaned Burmese children, many of whom have lost their parents to AIDS, a disease that is rampant in a border area afflicted by prostitution and drug addiction.
“Some of these children were found abandoned in the street, most likely left by desperate mothers who cannot afford to take care of them,” said Yi Yi Win, who coordinates SAW’s health programs, which include counseling and treatment of HIV-positive women and a reproductive health program that provides sex education to thousands of migrants. “There are so many bad things happening to women and children here. And we are helping many of them.”
*Names have been changed.
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