A New Ally in the Fight Against Sexual Violence
“What is violence?”
Bee Hsu looks at the people sitting in a half circle before him. The group confers, talking in muffled voices. Finally, an old man volunteers, “It is when you harm somebody, not only physically, but also mentally.”
Bee Hsu nods and continues his presentation. The 24-year-old Burmese refugee is a volunteer for a unique IRC project that aims to enlist men in the fight against sexual violence in camps housing thousands of displaced people in Thailand.
“We walk around the camp and talk to people once a week,” Bee Hsu says, as he makes his way through the maze of bamboo huts that makes up Site 1 refugee camp. Like most of the camp’s 22,000 residents, Bee Hsu is Karenni.
The camp, administered by Thai authorities, is set amid lush tropical vegetation and rice terraces near the town of Mae Hong Son, only a few miles from the Burmese border. The IRC has provided health services, water and sanitation since it opened 10 years ago. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of domestic violence here,” Bee Hsu says. “Living in a refugee camp is hard, because we are not allowed to leave and work outside. The stress and unemployment often leads to alcohol and drug abuse, which in turn results in tension at home and the husband beating his wife and children.”
Bee Hsu and a dozen other men volunteered when they heard about the IRC’s efforts to involve men in combating sexual and domestic violence. No reliable numbers exist on the prevalence of domestic violence in the camp, but surveys in similar camps indicate that well over half the women have suffered violence and abuse at some point in their lives.
“I felt that I had to change things,” Bee Hsu says emphatically. “Violence against women is ripping the community here apart and is ruining the peace of the entire camp. The smallest thing is enough for some men to explode, like the wife asking a question about money or the food not being prepared on time.”
Volunteers inform the community about alternatives to violence and abuse. “We mediate between family members when they have problems,” says Bee Hsu. “We are not out to attack the man for his behavior. Instead, we sit down with him and explain that in a family with domestic problems the children become nervous and can’t study, which jeopardizes their future.”
Apart from raising awareness about sexual violence, the IRC runs a community center where women can gather to learn vocational skills or read books in the small library. It’s also a place where the IRC staff can provide battered women with temporary safety. “We also say that if the Karenni are to survive as a group, we need harmony on all levels of our community—in the family as well as in the camp as a whole,” says Bee Hsu. “Often we end up talking about relationships in general, or health problems the families are facing.”
Getting men engaged is vital to preventing sexual violence and abuse in the camp, according to Melissa Alvarado, who runs the IRC’s anti-violence program in Mae Hong Son.
“Men can play a significant role in helping to end this problem in their various roles as brothers, fathers, husbands, friends and community leaders,” she says. “We need the support of male advocates to win over other men. It often requires a man to influence other men. Women can do little to change a situation of domestic violence. If the perpetrator doesn’t change his own behavior, violence is likely to continue.”