Safe Houses and Women’s Protection

Community Awareness Raising

KWO works to support the needs of women and children by resolving social problems to ensure their protection and above all create a safe environment for them within our capacity in the existing community system. There were 11, 296 beneficiaries of the social welfare program with KWO working to address areas of concern including sexual and gender-based violence, unemployment, extreme poverty, caring for the most vulnerable (elderly, disabled, widowed, orphaned children), building confidence and engaging with survivors of violence from the military, supporting women’s access to justice with the Karen administration as well as in Burma. Networks in Karen civil society strengthen the support that KWO is able to provide to overcome the many increasing challenges that have come with reductions in cross-border aid. KWO is recognized as an advocate for women and child rights and access to justice. Our community looks to our leadership when they need protection and support. We take on the responsibilities of social work by serving as a mediator in times of conflict and disagreement in the community. Through informal capacities, KWO is responsible for resolving social problems that may arise, which includes doing social-work related tasks as we are seen as community-caregivers. KWO leaders have agreements that in exchange for this work, they are given more opportunities to speak in leadership capacities. 

All of our staff and leaders are Karen indigenous women and most have been or are currently refugees. We also proactively strengthen coordination among local SGBV stakeholders. We work with the Karen Student Network Group (KSNG) in the drafting of legal support and protection mechanisms for women and children respectively, which will be brought forward to the Karen National Union (KNU) for their consideration and we anticipate their adoption.

Project Background:

The people of Burma have been struggling with poverty and underdevelopment due to the long-standing armed conflict within the country. The political instability has affected all people emotionally, socially and economically. The women and girls in and from Burma, especially ethnic women, have experienced exceptionally high levels of violence and totally inadequate responses by the justice and security systems they have access to.  

In Karen State violence against women is perpetrated by armed Burmese soldiers from the state army. In addition we recognize that SGBV occurs in our community, most commonly husbands against wives and other intimate partner violence. In the refugee camps women are safe from the violence of soldiers but are still victims of violence perpetrated by men in our own community, and by Thai nationals. Domestic violence is common in both the refugee camps and in Karen State, this is due to prevalent social and cultural norms within our community.  For instance, most of the people in our community think that domestic violence is a family issue and therefore that is not appropriate for those outside the family to intervene. So in most cases any interventions that do take place are then too late to prevent severe trauma from occurring. As people are aware the community justice response system is not strong, which adds to some women’s reluctance to report. Responses from governance structures in the refugee camps are insufficient, and are even poorer in Karen State.

KWO has been the leading community-based provider in the refugee camps and Karen State of care, refuge and awareness to vulnerable women and children -including victims of SGBV- since we were established more than 60 years ago. Our capacity to provide care depends on the resources we have available, nevertheless women in trouble in the Karen community have always been given shelter in the homes of KWO members and leaders. Since 2001 in the refugee camps KWO has run the ‘Safe Houses’ project, aiming to formalize and expand provision of services to victims, and to enlarge our capacity to prevent and respond to cases of SGBV.

Due to ongoing armed conflict in Karen State it had been difficult to provide systematic support from KWO central level to our sisters in Karen State in relation to cases of SGBV. However in 2015, because of slowly improving political conditions in Burma, we managed to pilot a ‘Women’s Protection’ project in some parts of Karen State with funding from the International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) Project for Local Empowerment (PLE). Although there were many challenges in the implementation of this work, the KWO lead in each site recognized the importance of this service provision and requested that the project continue. In 2017 we combined the projects -‘Safe Houses’ in the refugee camps on the Thai/Burma border, and ‘Women’s Protection’ in Karen State- into one to maximize resource and cost effectiveness, to allow for smoother project management and to ensure the sharing of expertise.

With 18 years’ experience of running the safe houses in the camps KWO is the lead provider of services for women victims of SGBV. We have built up a strong program in this time which includes manuals and education materials for staff, as well as resources we have made that support awareness raising activities in the community. From the beginning of the project KWO has fought for better services, coordination and protection for women in the camps, and has done this proactively in Karen State too. Advocacy is a key component of our work, from accompanying women wherever they need in order to access legal or health services, to working with a wide network of women’s organizations in Burma, to pushing for a change in the laws that affect Burma, and for adoption of policies in the justice system of the Karen National Union.

In 2018 KWO contracted an external evaluator to conduct an evaluation of the safe house project in the refugee camps. The aspiration of this was to get some ideas on project development, and to ensure that lessons learned from the camps were being effectively applied in Karen State. The external evaluation concluded (based on feedback from all the key participants) that KWO’s safe house and women’s protection work is essential in the camps, and even more so as social problems like suicide, alcohol and drug abuse and crime continue to rise because of the increasingly challenging circumstances.

In 2018, KWO ran 13 safe houses in seven camps. In 2019, KWO ran 12 safe houses in seven camps. The safe houses are intended to provide a safe shelter for young women and girls and their families who have been exposed to gender-based violence. They operate with the support of two-full time carers sharing 24-hour shifts, seven days a week. They are in regular communications with security officials if a threat at any time arises that undermines the safety of the women staying in the safe house.

Survivors staying in the KWO safe house are provided regular, ongoing care including counselling, case-managing and are provided with legal counsel through camp or Thai judicial systems if they request it. The services are also provided to survivors who stay at their homes. The carer and field staff make sure to visit regularly. KWO SH WP staff also provide material assistance to women and young girls staying at home and are visited regularly to ensure the status of their mental and physical well-being is in good status. Young children in particular who have family members addicted to drugs or alcohol are at an increased risk of neglect and malnutrition. The funding reduction to different kinds of social services in the camps and pressure for refugee return remain the two main issues that are of concern for people in the camps.

There are still a lot of people who feel they are not being provided with enough information to decide on their futures. This overwhelming sense of fear and uncertainty contributes to low self-esteem and high levels of depression. KWO makes sincere efforts to do home visits in the camps to talk with families and individuals about their situation and get feedback on the best way to support them. For women in particular, KWO encourages them to speak out if they need counseling so they are not isolated from the community.

KWO is an ethnic women’s community-based organization that empowers women so they have capacity and power to solve their own problems and participate in decision-making that will affect their lives. Morden by Automatic theme, customised by KWO, copyright 2019

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