RESPONSE: JUNE 2018 ISSUE

Helping Women Find Power

United Methodist Women Regional Missionary Emma Cantor Leads Workshops Across Asia.

Helping Women Find Power
Participants in an ecumenical workshop on women's empowerment in Kalay, Myanmar. The workshop was led by Emma Cantor.

Emma Cantor works across a wide stretch of the world where people speak dozens of languages. That’s not an obstacle for Cantor, a regional missionary in Asia for United Methodist Women, because she says there’s a common language women share no matter the political or cultural context.

“Every part of Asia has its own language, but what is common is the love that women have for God,” says Cantor, a deaconess from the Philippines. “I’m thankful that United Methodist Women has given me the opportunity to talk, to be in partnership, to pray with, to teach, and to be friends with these women.”

One of the places where Cantor has made friends is in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma. For more than a decade she has accompanied women there as their country has slowly emerged from crushing military rule and international isolation.

After more than a century of British control, then Burma achieved its independence in 1948. Yet democratic rule was short-lived, and a 1962 military coup launched the country into decades of authoritarian rule. A growing pro-democracy movement slowly gained international attention in the 1980s, and Aung San Suu Kyi became its leader. Daughter of Aung San, the principle architect of Burma’s break with Great Britain who was assassinated on the eve of independence, Suu Kyi had lived outside the country for more than 20 years. Yet her family’s stature thrust her into a prominent political role. Frightened by her rising popularity, the military placed Suu Kyi under house arrest, preventing her from traveling to Oslo to receive the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.

Under continued domestic and international pressure, the military announced sweeping reforms in 2011. Although political and economic freedoms were expanded, the military remained the undisputed power behind the scenes. Those in charge were former military officers who swapped their khaki uniforms for suits and longyi—the sarong-type skirt traditionally favored by both men and women in Myanmar.

However military officers dressed, they watched as democracy activists continued to slowly erode their power, and by 2016 Suu Kyi became the State Counselor of Myanmar—the country’s de facto prime minister. While the world celebrated and eased sanctions against Myanmar, it remained clear that her power was limited. The military continued to be the final arbiter of power.

Despite the limits to her authority, or perhaps because of them, Suu Kyi is idolized by many in Myanmar. Yet many women in the country, like their political heroine, feel caught in the tension between wanting their rights respected and living in a political and religious culture that has pushed back against their empowerment.

Emma Cantor thinks that tension is the perfect place for mission to occur. Cantor started coming to Myanmar in 2005 to train Bible Women, who are laywomen in the Methodist Church who teach literacy and spread the Gospel in their rural villages. Over the years since, as the country has experimented with the promise and limits of democracy, Cantor has worked with a variety of denominations in Myanmar to expand the role and ministry of women within their churches and communities.

In October 2017, Cantor traveled to Kalay, a city in northwestern Myanmar that sits at the edge of Chin State, home of the ethnic Chin people. Often considered to be “doubly oppressed,” the Chin are a minority in a country where the dominant Bamar ethnic group controls most levers of power; moreover, the Chin are largely Christian in a staunchly Buddhist country.

Chin women sit even lower in the social hierarchy, and Cantor’s workshop was designed to challenge that by helping the women discover their own theological voice.

“In the workshop we talk together about health issues, about peace and gender, about how women’s faith can help their empowerment,” Cantor said. “Many of them have been suffering from violence directed at them, but they can’t necessarily identify it. With the training they are able to identify the violence as it happens, including structural forms of violence such as the laws against tribal women that leave them unable to inherit property from their families.”

Cantor said the women left the workshop with concrete plans “for how they can be instruments of peace in a war-torn state and war-torn country. From now on they’ll be part of the decision-making in their families, church and communities.”

United Methodist Women scholar

Cantor was assisted in leading the workshop by Catherine Lalnunmawii, a Myanmar native who recently graduated from Harris Memorial College in the Philippines. With a scholarship from United Methodist Women, Lalnunmawii received a degree in early childhood education and is today helping the Methodist Church in Chin State to revamp its Sunday School and preschool programs. Harris college is also supported by United Methodist Women.

Lalnunmawii says the workshop helped participants view their own experiences with new eyes by providing them a safe space to reflect freely on their lives as women.

“When we talked about gender-based violence here in Myanmar, some women couldn’t see how they were being abused. They thought what had happened in their lives was simply normal. But when we analyzed different forms of violence and asked them to list how they’d personally been affected, they said, ‘Oh, I’ve got a lot to write down,’” she said.

“I myself learned how we often don’t understand we’re being abused. Yet when we can start talking about our rights as human beings, as women, then our eyes are opened. Before, for example, many of the women said we are cursed by God to bear children and to suffer many things, but now we have learned that we are givers of life.”

Zohmingthangi Sailo says Cantor’s workshop got women talking about critically important national issues.

“Tradition and customary law have created an environment where women can’t clearly see how their rights are violated,” said Sailo, the executive secretary of the Women’s Department of the Myanmar Council of Churches. “We see this when a father divides his property to give to the children. Women almost always get a smaller share, or nothing at all. That supports women’s subordination to men, and it reinforces women thinking that their role in society is limited to taking care of the children, cooking the food and doing other domestic work.”

Hming Sangi is one of several Presbyterians who participated in Cantor’s workshop, and she plans to take what she learned and share it with other women in her denomination.

“We women have power, but because of the discrimination in our culture, we’re considered weaker than men. A lot of that is because as a tribal people engaged in agriculture, we think that muscle power is very important. But there are other kids of power than that which comes from muscles,” said Sangi, a lecturer at Tahan Theological College.

Sailo says the prominent public role of Suu Kyi hasn’t really transformed the status of women at the grassroots.

“She is special. There is no one else like her. Yet most leadership positions in every field and in the government are occupied by men. Even though we have a woman leader, things haven’t changed much,” Sailo said.

What Sailo does claim has changed things is the country’s worst disaster in recent memory. Cyclone Nargis in 2008 may have killed more than 100,000 people just in Myanmar. The military government initially prohibited outside assistance from reaching devastated communities, which forced people to organize themselves in new ways.

“When the cyclone hit, the people suffered. The government’s response was insufficient, so in order to rescue people and begin rehabilitation work, new civil society groups had to form. We got support from women in other countries to go to the delta area and support pregnant women and children. A new network of more than 30 women’s groups emerged,” said Sailo.

“I call it the Nargis Effect. And we are still seeing today the positive impact of a horrible tragedy. Women are much better organized, because we learned that we couldn’t depend on others. We had to rely on ourselves.”

The organizational capacity developed in the wake of Nargis and other disasters won’t be wasted in coming years. According to the 2018 Global Climate Risk Index, Myanmar was the third most vulnerable country in the world to the effects of climate change over the previous two decades. And the intensity and regularity with which cyclones make landfall have only increased as the climate has changed. Myanmar’s Irrawaddy Delta region has grown increasingly susceptible to tropical storms and its Dry Zone increasingly vulnerable to more frequent and more debilitating droughts. Climate change is clearly not gender neutral, and since women suffer and die more in extreme weather events wherever they occur, women in Myanmar will have to step up their organizing.

Women’s participation may hold the key to other issues facing the country as well.

Myanmar’s complicated ethnic landscape has produced a number of insurgent groups that since independence have fought against the Bamar-dominated central government. In 2015, the government signed a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with eight groups, but seven separatist groups, including the largest rebel armies, refused to sign.

Peace talks with the rebel groups have been plagued by low levels of women’s participation. Despite a government commitment to have at least 30 percent of negotiators be women, only 7 percent of participants in the first Union Peace Conference in 2016 were women. According to the Alliance for Gender Inclusion in the Peace Process, that number increased for the 2017 session but remained below 20 percent. Many activists say peace will remain elusive unless women, youth and other grassroots groups are fully welcomed to the table.

United Methodist Women missionary

Cantor says women can play key roles in healing Myanmar. That’s why one of the Biblical stories she discussed with the women in the Kalay workshop was Jesus’ encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman.

“This woman wrestled theologically with Jesus, questioning why he compared the Gentiles to dogs, in the process healing not only her daughter but also healing Jesus and healing the relationship between the Gentiles and Jews. In demanding help from someone she perceived as a healer, the Syro-Phoenician woman became a healer herself,” Cantor said.

“Healing among women in Asia is important, Women are victims of so many kinds of violence, poverty and trafficking. My work as a missionary for United Methodist Women involves finding women from the grassroots who are struggling for empowerment, and accompanying them as they advocate for life and healing in their communities.”


The Rev. Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and senior correspondent for response.

 

Posted or updated: 6/1/2018 12:00:00 AM
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