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The Future Women Want

‘Gender Equality’ and Sustainable Development

On the concluding day of the Rio+20 Sustainability Conference, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the Prime Minister of Denmark who addressed the plenary session, had the following to say on the outcome document titled “The Future We Want”:

Helle Thorning-Schmidt

Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt at the Rio+20. Photo: Preethi Nallu 

“Gender equality should be a key pursuit on the road to a green future“.

She had just participated in the UN Women’s High Level Summit as part of the Rio+20 events.

Along with other female Heads of State, she signed a ‘call to action’ that urged governments, civil society and the private sector to prioritise gender equality and women’s empowerment in the sustainable development agenda.

Despite the inspiring portfolio line-up of a few female leaders, the pledge provides little consolation to rural women thousands of miles away who face inordinate difficulties in their pursuit for basic rights – one being education. These women are often forced to leave their native countries to look for livelihood. They illegally cross porous borders to enter affluent neighbouring countries, where they are often exploited as cheap labour. South East Asia has gained notoriety for mass migration patterns with Thailand being a popular destination.

‘In pursuit of a better life’

Ying Long was 16 years old when she first crossed over to Thailand from a small town in Shan State Burma. By the tender age of 13, she had already juggled between selling vegetables and lottery tickets to support her impoverished family and attended a public school that provided inconsistent, substandard education.

“Once my mother passed way, I could not continue my education because my father was unhealthy. I worked from 4 am in the morning. My sister was only eight years old would go with me to the market. Others who have families and support are lucky. Me, I had to stand on my own,”  Ying explains.

As she regales the story of her journey from living an invisible life as a illegal domestic worker in Thailand to starting a basic education at a grassroots organisation and finally being admitted to the program of her choice at a university in Thailand, her voices quivers with emotion. Ying’s passion for education overwhelms all those listening to her, fellow students and teachers alike.

“I was working as a cleaner at an NGO and I had the chance to take English lessons. So I decided to study hard and attended classes at a Shan group. I ended up interning at the same NGO where I worked as a cleaner. Fourteen years later, I am at university.”

But, Ying’s narrative is an exceptional success story and one that stands in stark contrast to the fates of millions of women who escape poverty and negligence from the Burmese State to enter Thailand – which has been the recipient of millions of migrant workers from its under-developed neighbours, including Laos and Cambodia.

Gender Perspective from Rio+20

Speaking as a representative of the Rural Women’s at the Rio+20, Emily Tjale from South Africa, who has been advocating gender equality since before the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, explains that women have been consistently left out of the development agenda.

“They [UN] have been holding conference after conference to discuss sustainable development, but we, rural women, have to sustain our livelihood, our communities and our families. We have been marginalised and are disadvantaged in all aspects, whether education or work. But we are not recognised as a ‘people’ or as stakeholders in this process.”

Educational NGOs fill void in Thailand

Ursula Cats started the We women foundation based on the Thai-Burma border where Ying Long has sought educational assistance.

The Dutch founder’s idea for this foundation emanated from her thesis project that focused on ‘unrecognised female refugees’ from Burma, living in Thailand

“Based on the findings of my research, I had the foundation to set up an organisation. What these women repeatedly told me is that they do not have the status, they do not have the knowledge to work as leaders in their communities. They want to develop their country but feel that they have less chances than men.”

Her grassroots organisation exemplifies the efforts of smaller civil society initiatives that strive to fill the void in funding and support for unclassified immigrants to Thailand. Due to the UN’s inability to prioritise funds (because these women do not fit the internationally accepted definition of ‘refugees’) and the Thai government’s sensitivity towards the issue due to their illegitimate status, millions of workers and their families lead invisible lives without any protection or access to education.

Yet, Thailand’s economy is dependent on the hard labour services provided by millions of migrant workers, many of whom are women from Burmese ethnic minority communities.

Access for Migrants

About two million migrant workers from Burma reside in Thailand, out of which at least 800,000 are illegal. Whilst the Thai government has announced a registration system by which migrant workers will have to verify their nationality to apply for legal work permits, little is being done in terms of programs to incorporate migrant workers into the mainstream community. The communities struggle for basic services such as education, a much needed long term instrument for current and future generations to progress.

Rural women's groups presented their agenda for gender-equitable development at Rio+20. Photo: Preethi Nallu

“Coming here I was amazed at how hungry they are for education, because there is such a lack of opportunities, they want it so much more”, explains Meaghan Fortune, a teacher and project coordinator at We women foundation who has coached students like Ying.

Between students who have lived in Thailand for decades without returning home and those who have arrived recently, (especially in light of recent reforms), there appears to be a difference in attitude towards the plausibility of returning home to better conditions.

“..The ones who have come recently have a bit more drive to go back because they feel it is their country. They are more hopeful of the changes happening even if they are cynical at times. Whereas, the women who have been here for many years, it is difficult for them to change their views because of the horrible things they experienced for a long time under the previous regime,” explains Fortune.

Cats who has been working with these communities for years, explains that some of the women are hesitant because they have been politically active and their advocacy work has meant ‘no guarantees’ in terms of protection from scrutiny by the government – if they were to return to their homes.

Sustainable Future for All

Whether intending to return home or wanting to permanently reside in Thailand, ‘unclassified’ migrant women are clearly in need of access to education from primary to university level in order to break the barriers of gender related poverty.

Equitable advancement of women from rural communities of developing and under-developed countries should be an important component of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were discussed at the Rio+20 and expected to start in 2014. As pointed out by Thorning-Schmidt, “the mobilisation of civil society and private sectors as partners is vital.”

Corporations and governments must heed the perspective of these marginalised stakeholders.

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About The Author(s)



Preethi Nallu

Preethi Nallu

Journalist (print/audio/video), multi-media specialist, current affairs analyst

Preethi Nallu is a print and broadcast journalist with a special focus on human rights and development. She is a regular contributor to a variety of media outlets, including Al Jazeera, Inter-Press Service, Doha Centre for Media Freedom, Monocle 24 and VJ Movement. ​Preethi has covered wide-ranging issues from Arab-Israeli politics to the UN Climate Conference (COP 15) and human rights/democratic reform in Burma ​With living and work experience in eight countries across the globe, her vision as a journalist is to combine the fields of International Relations, Current Affairs and Media in producing timely and thematic stories with in-depth analysis.

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