In the shade of a medicinal garden, Emma and Jo have an emotional encounter with two women who have risked absolutely everything for their communities.
Our next port of call is a quiet place where Jo and Tindy and I can talk to a few of the Fellows in private. We repair to a garden where medicinal plants are grown. Above the plants, signs read ‘NEVER OLD’, ‘NEVER SICK’ and ‘NEVER DEAD’. I write down the Latin names, resolving to plant them immediately in the back garden.
Jo and I sit with two women, Marien Tun (26) and Khin Lin (29). They both look much younger than their years, Khin Lin in particular, who might be 15. We have seen them in high spirits with the other Fellows, expressively and animatedly describing their work and the feeling of joy and confidence it gives them. But here, away from al the excitement and upon more personal ground, it’s a different story.
Both girls, it transpires, have experienced huge discrimination from family and neighbours, since childhood and in relation to the work they’re doing now.
Marien says her relatives and neighbours treat her as worthless. Khin Lin says she was raised by aunts who told her girls didn’t need education, shouldn’t ask questions and should only do as they’re told. The aunts say this Fellows work is not a girl’s work. She still has to ask her aunt for permission to leave the house. At 29 years old.
Marien rubs Khin Lin’s tiny shoulders – she sits, looking utterly stricken, staring into the forest with huge tears flowing down her cheeks. Marien says she wasn’t allowed out after 6. “I used to have hair I could sit on but I didn’t feel free, so I cut it!”
There’s such a deep well of pain in both these women – they have been traumatised by their upbringings and experience their independence as a stigma. Even Khin Lin’s friends nudge each other and say, that girl goes off with all those Fellows – she’s bad.
“So why do you keep doing it?” asks Jo.
Because I have a brain and I can decide what’s right for myself. So I carry on.
When we ask Marien to describe her upbringing, she takes off her shawl and holds it up, letting it wave in the breeze.
“When I was very small, I was like this, free and lively and happy. Then they started to fold me,” she folds the shawl in half. “And fold me again,” she folds the shawl again and keeps folding it until it’s tightly squashed. The she mimes putting it into a box. “Girls must be like this – good, well-behaved, never escaping. OK, my parents don’t like my job but they will die one day and I will leave this place. Until they die I must stay in the box.”
Recently she tells us, she had a huge row with her father about all of it. He wants to control her and he says if he can’t control her behavior he will become mentally disturbed.
So I try not to fall in love...I have worked out that I can either have my freedom or a family life. Not both.
Jo asks if either of them has anyone to look after them. They look at each other and shrug. “We look after ourselves.”
Marien says that her hope is that if she takes care of the community with a good attitude, she will receive a good attitude in return. Karmic thinking. They both use the counselling methods they learnt from ActionAid after Cyclone Nargis on themselves.
We’ve all had a good cry and then we ask them what makes them happy about being Fellows. They suddenly grin. “How long have you got?” asks Marien.
They have so much to say – she loves feeling empathy for the community, she loves providing skills, she loves teaching the children, she loves the self-help groups, and the thing she loves most of all is knowing about women’s rights and helping other women understand that they do have rights and they can participate in social activities. She looks at them growing and feels huge happiness.
I can feel everyone growing and getting better – and the children get higher marks and do well and I feel so proud of them. Their happiness is my happiness.
Because of these women, village life has hugely improved. Marien walks away and hawks with huge power and brio into the surrounding forest. I do feel something has been brought up out of all of us.
It’s difficult to reconcile their early lives in silence and sadness with their present-day joys. We know Marien won’t marry in order to preserve her father’s sanity – but when we ask Khin Lin if she envisages a family of her own, she shakes her head vehemently.
“I’m Rakhine” she says “The rules for women in our culture are even more restrictive. It’s a sacrifice I’m happy to make. I think marriage is an essentially repressive state.”
These tiny, beautiful, patient, exhausted women are inexpressibly moving.