She Started A Charity To Revolutionize The Way Women In Myanmar Talk About Sex, Bodies & Reproductive Health

We are seeing a sexual revolution happening around the world. For some, the phrase “sexual revolution” can foster discomfort at the thought of (especially) women owning their sexual desires and decisions. But this revolution goes far beyond the act of sexual intercourse, and instead carries with it a vital tool of empowerment for women.

The revolution we are seeing has an important focus on education, awareness about gender violence, and reproductive health. We have posted articles about women in the developing world who are filling the gap, especially in ultra conservative cultures where the mere thought of discussing sex and sexuality in an open way brings about shame, or worse.

In Indonesia, one woman who calls herself the “Orgasm Lady” speaks out against the country’s hypocritical treatment of women and sexuality, while also using her platform to educate young women about sex education. A female condom company based out of India is working on challenging the gender status quo by promoting sexual health awareness and educating people about STD and HIV prevention.

Which brings us to our next focus in the sexual revolution movement. A woman in Myanmar is turning her own confusing experiences and messages about sex growing up into an opportunity to help women be equipped with the right knowledge about their bodies and sexuality, in order to live an empowered and healthy life.

Htar Htar grew up believing that a woman’s menstrual cycle makes her dirty and impure. She was also taught by her father that women are not equal with men, and that they don’t get to make their own choices. It wasn’t until she attended a sexual health workshop at the age of 37, conducted by an Israeli sex therapist, that she heard an entirely different perspective on women’s sexuality for the first time.

Instead of the standard messages about shaming, she learned about the vital connections between sexuality, emotion and psychology. That was her light-bulb moment, and it spurred Htar Htar to start her own charity to help other women around Myanmar who have grown up believing the same detrimental messages like she was. Akhaya Women, which translates to “Women Are the Key to Change” holds workshops and creates social campaigns where women have the ability to talk about sex, the female body and reproductive health.

Newsdeeply.com’s Sutirtha Sahariah interviewed Htar Htar for their series on women in Myanmar, and mentioned how she created an important campaign in 2012 called ‘Whistles for Help’ which gave women the tools to call for help and speak out in situations where they were being sexually assaulted. 30,000 whistles were distributed among women at public transport areas (a place where harassment toward women has become the norm) in the city of Yangon, and their message about women’s bodies not simply being an object of sexual pleasure was also shared.

Sutirtha Saharia interviewed Htar Htar about her mission, and how she hopes to break certain stereotypes that dominate society. The Israeli sex therapist who opened her eyes to the importance of knowing one’s body taught her that a woman experiencing pleasure from sex is intrinsically linked to her freedom.

“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,” she said.

Htar Htar explains that the concept of female empowerment and gender equality are fairly new in Myanmar, and while most emerging female-driven initiatives are centered around empowering women financially through employment opportunities, her focus is a little different.

“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,” she said.

During the workshops, the participants are invited to share the various myths they have been taught to believe, and naturally there is a level of shyness and awkwardness present when the topics of sexuality and pleasure start getting discussed.

“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,” she said.

Thanks to funding from donors and sponsors, Akhaya has been able to educate thousands of women across Myanmar, and train multiple NGO staff, business leaders, and faith-based organizations on the need to include comprehensive discussions about women’s empowerment through sexuality. One of the most important points of contact was with women in government which Htar Htar believes can lead to major reform in the country.

“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,” she said.

They have also seen nuns attend their workshops, which shows how valuable their curriculum is in reaching across different societal borders.

“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,” she explained.

With the growing knowledge around the close link between lack of sexual empowerment and high rates of sexual violence toward women, Akhaya Women is more than just a charity, it is going to be an important tool for an entire generation of women in Myanmar to understand their equal worth and take ownership over their bodies, away from harmful cultural mindsets.

To learn more about Akhaya Women, their programs, or how to get involved, visit their website.

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