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The Burmese Refugee Emergency: A Gendered Perspective

Updated: Feb 23

In contrast with developmental initiatives, armed conflict across the world has exponentially increased, expelling 68.5 million people from their native homes and leading to ‘chronic displacement’ (Koning, 2019). Alarmingly, this number disproportionately represents women and children, to which the effects of their displacement is ‘gravely understudied’ (ibid, 2019). There are three main forces that push civilians from their homes and to unfamiliar lands: political repression, armed conflict, and economic devastation. Myanmar was, and still is, wrought with all three; deeply entangled in the livelihoods of ethnic minorities who must bear the brunt of such repression, violence, and economic deprivation.

There are currently nine camps along the Western Thai border that host 100,000 Burmese ethnic minority civilians, who live under strict impositions that control movement within camps (Feldman and Carpeno, 2015). By decreeing it ‘illegal’ to exit the camp, Thai legislation has successfully kept the Karen, Karenni, Mon, and Shan people confined to the realm of this borderland (ibid, 2015). They are unable to leave to access better opportunities for schooling, jobs, and exercise their rights to basic citizenship practices. Most refugees are stateless, meaning they do not have citizenship in either Myanmar or Thailand, as the former has rejected them due to their ethnicity while the latter has rejected them as a burden. Statelessness is predominantly hinged on lack of proper documentation, border issues, and memberships to a certain ethnic minority. Despite this, camps along the Burmese-Thai border have gradually flourished into sites for political mobilization and empowerment, where a bulk of activity is linked to the emergence of vibrant, multi-ethnic women’s movements (Olivius, 2019). The act of isolating the refugees has inadvertently given rise to empowering, endonormative developments in response to the paucity of resources, national efforts to stymie refugee capacities, and the shortcomings of INGOs.

While crossing from Myanmar to the Thai border, many women find that their safety eludes them during and after this arduous journey. The political trauma and violence inflicted upon refugee women, prior to fleeing, has become grotesquely manifested in numerous forms of gender-based violence, including but not limited to: abuse, trafficking, and discrimination. Furthermore, the perennial feelings of ennui within the camps leads to vagarious acts of gender-based violence, hindering female empowerment: the fear of such reinforces gender inequalities within the camp and perpetuates a sense of powerlessness (Tutty, 2015). The status of many refugee women as stateless, lacking documents, and desperate for income, places them in an incredibly vulnerable position (Spires, 2012). Due to their low-unemployment, women are highly targeted by sellers who lure them into exploitative situations due to the ‘three-D jobs’: dirty, dangerous, and degrading (Rijken, 2015). Susceptibility to trafficking is identified into two dominant forms: internal and external. Internal causes may be lack of self-confidence, seeking to become independent, to enhance one’s capabilities, and pressure to be responsible for one’s family; external causes include gender discrimination, lack of education, and lack of awareness (ibid, 2015). Locally-owned, grassroots women’s organizations along the borderland support community action and coherence: they persist as the main actors by leadership workshops focused on gender equity, mitigating gender-based violence, and raising awareness of trafficking via literacy (Maber, 2016). The notion of empowerment, or being empowered, is attributed to ‘high self-confidence in one’s ability to successfully solve particular problems’ (Rijken, 2015).

Refugee women living within the camps have been key players in the social reconstruction of the camps, demonstrating how sustainable forms of empowerment involve the act and process of conscious-raising integrated within non-formal education (Ashikho, 2016). These women have promoted democracy, peace, reconciliation, unity in diversity, and empowerment long before empowerment became a ‘development’ issue (ibid, 2016). It is all too common that refugee women are either segregated inside the nation or ‘turned into boundary subjects’; by initiating peace-making activities that promote gender equity and awareness of gender-based violence, Burmese refugee women have indeed seized their ‘empowerment’ through these endeavors (Laungaramsri, 2006). As gender equity is a concomitant of rights and dignity, refugee women have appropriated the laws and resolutions enacted by the UN in order to assert their authority ‘in the face of the INGOs who disregard their subjective experience’ (Olivius, 2019). Rather than positioning themselves as ‘passive beneficiaries of aid,’ Burmese refugee women have claimed their political subjectivity and rights as members of the community (ibid, 2019).

Search for the definition of ‘grassroots’ and you will find the following: ‘ordinary people regarded as the main body of an organization. If I could take artistic liberation in revising the definition of grassroots, I would say that it is ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary things; community efforts spearheaded by women’s organizations have led to the synthesis of cultural preservation, in tandem with the dissemination of knowledge that challenges gender inequity.



Ashikho, A. (2016). Women in Exile and Empowerment: A Case Study of Women League of

Burma in Thailand. Doctorate Thesis, Pondicherry University.

Feldman, H. and Carpeno, E. (2015). Childhood and Education in Thailand-Burma/Myanmar

Border Refugee Camps. Global Studies of Childhood, 5(4), pp. 414-424.

Koning, S. (2019). Displacement Contexts and Violent Landscapes: How Conflict and

Displacement Structure Women’s Lives and Ongoing Threats at the Thai-Myanmar Border. Social Science and Medicine, 240.

Laungaramsri, P. (2006). Imagining Nation: Women’s Rights and the Transnational Movement

of Shan Women in Thailand and Burma. European Journal of Anthropology, 47, pp. 48-61.

Maber, E. (2016). Cross-border Transitions: Navigating Conflict and Political Change Through

Community Education Practices in Myanmar the Thai Border. Globalization, Societies and Education, 14(3), pp. 347-398.

Olivius, E. (2019). Claiming Rights in Exile: Women’s Insurgent Citizenship Practices in the

Thai-Myanmar Borderlands. Citizenship Studies, 23(8), pp. 761-779.

Rijken, C. et. al. (2015). The Nexus between Statelessness and Human Trafficking in Thailand.

Thailand Report.

Spires, R. (2012). Human Trafficking and Education: A Qualitative Case Study of Two NGO

Programs in Thailand. Doctorate Thesis, The University of Georgia.

List of (some) NGOs Run by and For Ethnic Minority, Refugee Women:


Kelly Gillespie is from San Francisco, California and a volunteer for CoB. She completed her undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley and recently obtained her MS in Education & International Development from the University of Bristol, with a concentration on refugee education. She has lived in Northern Thailand (along the border of Myanmar) for one year, teaching EFL and has previously worked as a curriculum designer for Women’s Education for Advancement and Empowerment (WEAVE), refugeeEd, and the Association of Human Rights El Tambo. In her free time, Kelly enjoys traveling, surfing, reading and writing.

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