These Burmese women in Delhi step in as changemakers

Madhulika Sonkar

New Delhi, June 19 (IANS) Once dilapidated and dormant, flat number WZ-21 in west Delhi's semi-urban Budella area is now abuzz with activity. The two-room accomodation serves as the office of the Burmese Women Delhi (BWD), where scores of women listen with rapt attention to a 20-year-old woman who speaks on topics as diverse as women's rights and personality development.

Meet Roisang, an ethnic Chin Burmese, who came to India in 2007 with the dream and determination of changing lives of hundreds of refugee women who have made the national capital their home away from home.

'When I came here, I realised that the women go through exploitation, restrict themselves in houses throughout the day, and carry the emotional baggage of being a refugee,' Roisang told IANS.

With little formal education from her country, Roisang shuttles between her studies in the capital and the BWD office, where she also teaches English to the local Burmese women as they are not well conversant in either English or Hindi.

'I volunteered with the BWD, that was primarily meant to address the issues related to women. Burmese women also feel comfortable when they approach us,' Roisang added.

Roisang is accompanied by two young Burmese women Saumte and Chhery, all now working to hold sessions on human rights, women's rights, violence against women, vocational training and asylum seekers from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

According to the UNHCR, around 3,700 refugees were given identity cards as asylum-seekers in 2010, while over 4,500 refugees are still on the waiting list.

The team runs the centre with the help of two computers and furniture that came as part of funds, with a portrait of Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi gracing the wall.

Home to over 8,000 Myanmarese refugees, Delhi has several ethnic populations, including the Chin, Arakanese, Kachin and Shan communities. They primarily live in Vikaspuri, Uttam Nagar, Asalatpur and Janakpuri areas of the capital.

The men in the community get jobs in factories and other places, while the women remain in the houses to take care of children and manage household chores.

Amid unhygienic conditions, poverty, lack of access to health facilities, stifling language barriers, and the worst problem in the form of discrimination that the Burmese population here battle on a daily basis, BWD assists women on all rights-based issues.

'Ever since we were formed in 2006, we were determined to reach out to the grassroots women population that hesitated to confide with the government authorities on their problems,' Saumte, who came to Delhi in 2005, told IANS.

The BWD holds monthly interactive meetings, counsels victims of sexual harrassment, guides them on legal aid, conducts workshops on women living in countries under military rule and also engages with Indian women groups.

'The chance to speak freely and to practice their religion openly in India is welcomed, yet many Burmese refugees continue to suffer discrimination in areas of employment, food, healthcare, housing, and education,' explained Roisang, who confessed to having 'learnt ways of living in Delhi'.

The women do not know the future of Burma that has been under military rule for the last so many years, but they are hopeful that the fate of the poverty-ridden Burmese women living in the capital will change.

'To think that the political situation will change is maybe too hopeful. But the fate of Burma lies in the hands of young people who are here in New Delhi,' Chhery, a 29-year-old member of the BWD group, told IANS.

'We just want to make the women feel aware and responsible,' she said.

(Madhulika Sonkar can be contacted at madhulika.s@ians.in)