A Chin Woman in Action: Interview with Cheery Zahau of Women’s League of Chinland
8 March, 2007-London, UK [CG Note: A young, motivated Chin activist, Cheery Zahau of Women’s League of Chinland (WLC), was on her way back to
India after travelling as one of the Chin and Kachin delegation on an advocacy trip to the UK, Europe and the USA including her testifying at the UN on gender violence in Burma.
Determined, active and confident, Cheery talked to Van Biak Thang of Chinland Guardian in this interview about WLC, sexual crimes against Chin women by the Burmese soldiers, and more … during her short stay in London, UK. ]
Chinland Guardian: What organisation are you working with and what position do you hold?
Cheery Zahau: I am working with a woman’s organisation called Women’s League of Chinland (WLC) which is currently based in India. There are two co-ordinators and I am one of them. WLC has got members of nine organisations, which are based on Chin tribes – Lushei, Matu, Khumi, Mara, Zomi, Zotung and some of them are based on Chin such as Central Chin Women Organization, Chin Women Union and Chin Women Organization, Delhi. Each member organization sends their representative to WLC, which, we called, is a “Management Body”. [Women’s League of Chinland: http://www.chinwome n.org/]
Chinland Guardian: What are the main areas of work that you are engaged with?
Cheery Zahau: Well, particularly as a co-ordinator, I am co-ordinating activities of the whole organisation and making sure if each member organisation’ s activities are going well. And another is that I am a part of policy makers for WLC along with the nine Management Body members. In the past two years, we focused on three areas. The first one is women’s capacities building. For that, we had training programs on gender equality, human rights, documentation skills, project management, leadership and so and so forth. And the second area that we focus is promotion of women participations in political activities. For that, we are talking about quota system and reservation system for women. We talk about at least 30 percent seats will be reserved for women in the different sectors of the future democratic government and that should be constituted. And also, we are doing advocacy works. We produce the reports and do campaigns as a part of political advocacy. The third one is that we are working on strengthening unity among Chin women. For that, we have a meeting every six month. We share a lot of information, which we never did in the past. For example, we never know what the Matu women are doing and what Zomi women are doing. Now, within WLC, we share a lot of that information and increase a chance to have mature understanding and unity.
Chinland Guardian: We have learned that WLC has been working on a new report on sexual violence against Chin women. Can you briefly tell us about it?
Cheery Zahau: Yes, we often heard that there is sexual violence against Chin women in Chin State. But it was very difficult for us to document it. So, we start talking and documenting since last year. Within six months, we penetrated inside Chin State, which is extremely difficult because the soldiers are everywhere. Field workers can not carry notebooks, recorders or cameras. They have to remember information in their brains. And they can be checked and arrested any time. The worst thing in Chin State is that there are no other means of transports apart from walking on foot. So, the field workers can not travel very widely. It takes them plenty of time and sometimes, almost two months. We are able to document 38 cases, which are extremely heartening that the women are victimized by the Burmese soldiers. So, we are still working on that report and did a preliminary report in June, 2006. Now, we are trying to make a full report so you can wait …
Chinland Guardian: Can you tell us a general condition of Chin refugee women and children in India ?
Cheery Zahau: In India, Chin refugees live mainly in Mizoram and about 1500 live in New Delhi. Since my focus is on the Indian-Burmese border, I can tell you more about the situation in Mizoram. When people live in Mizoram, they don’t have a legal status because Indian government does not sign the 1951 Refugee Convention. So, the Indian government does not have a policy and any responsibilities for that, not legally binding to take care of the refugees. So, those refugees can be deported back any time. That’s the worst thing. And in terms of women, once they come to Mizoram, they have got to find a job. And many of the Chin women who came to Mizoram are not educated. So, what they have got as a job is very low and they just survive. Some are working as housemaids and others as farmers. Some sell ice-creams and vegetables on the road or in the market. In terms of children, since their parents do not have enough salary, many of them can not go to school. There are also some children who lost their parents or who came from broken families. There is no one to take care of them. If we look at this in the legal point, they are not human beings. There is no legal status for them. For instance, even if they die, they don’t die because they don’t exist before the law. If they go back to Burma, some can be in a very dangerous position. And very often, the Burmese soldiers remove their names from the registration and they are stateless persons.
Chinland Guardian: Apart from its activities in India, does WLC have any working relationship or networking with Chin women in other countries?
Cheery Zahau: Well, not yet. But we will come to work on anything to make relationships. That is a part of our visions to extend our network with other Chin women who live in other countries.
Chinland Guardian: Is WLC a part of any umbrella organisation such as WLB (Women League of Burma )? If not, do you have any plan to join them in the future?
Cheery Zahau: We are not a part of WLB yet though the women’s group such as Central Chin Women Organisation was the founding member of WLB. There were some reasons why we do not join at the moment. But we do a lot of work together and cooperate with each other in terms of women capacity building and advocacy works. I believe we will be a part of them in the future.
Chinland Guardian: Is WLC a part of any other Chin political organisations?
Cheery Zahau: No, not at all. People actually see as we were influenced by some political organizations. It is not true. We are independent and I think people should realize and remember now that WLC is women’s organization, not a political organization. But it does do political activities. This is purely women’s organization. As I mention earlier, we have like Matu, Zomi, Khumi, Mara, Lushai, Zotung, Falam and Hakha and so on. We have everyone here. We just try to make unity and understanding among the Chin people and to promote women’s status in our Chin community.
Chinland Guardian: As a rep of WLC, what were the main concerns that you raised in this advocacy trip?
Cheery Zahau: Whenever we talk about Burma just like our colleague Ben (Benedict Rogers) mentioned, we do not hear about Chin and Kachin. So this trip is to raise awareness of the Chin and the Kachin people. As for me, I talked about forced labour in Chin State, a little bit about child soldiers and of course sexual crimes against Chin women. We also raised refugee situations in India and Malaysia. Of course, we also talked about China and Russia’s vetoes against the UN Security Council resolution because it happened during this trip. So, it was a good timing.
Chinland Guardian: Can you tell us your views on the role of women in the democratic movement and in the Chin society? What are the main obstacles for active women participation in the movement?
Cheery Zahau: Well, I would like to go to your second question first. Within the Chin community, there is less respect for women, still. Many times, we are considered to be quiet or to be stronger than men. Suppose I want to be a leader, I have to be better or more organized than men. The expectation is much more toward women than men. For instance, when a man can go out freely, a woman can not go out because she is a woman.
From my own experience, I have to overcome those concepts and attitude. So in general this kind of concept makes the women quieter. The other obstacle that women have in Chin society is education. I think we don’t have many women who have got a very good education. The more we have educated women, the more they will speak out.
You know, women comprise half the population in Chin society or in Burmese society. It is like if half the population is being pressured or put aside or left behind, then the society development can not be balanced. We, men and women, need to go together. Only then will our society become balanced and better. For instance, if we say a woman does not need to go to school, one day she will get married and won’t be able to teach her children about health, basic skills that children should know. Then, the development will be going down.
Within the democratic movement, I see women’s participation become increased but still need to work on a lot. The endless civil war and the economic mismanagement by the military regime make the women suffer a lot. As a result, we, women can not keep silent anymore. It does not mean that women have to suffer in order to speak out. And the other factor is that Daw Suu has influence on the lives of women in Burma. What all the women want is peace, justice, equality and freedom. That’s what Daw Su always says.
Chinland Guardian: We have learned that you had a chance to testify at the UN 51st Session of commission on the status of women. Do you think the messages were well received?
Cheery Zahau: The title is State’s sanctioned mass rape in Burma and Sudan. So, when we had the panel, it was not only on Burma. The title itself is already clear and giving a very strong message about sexual crime happening in Burma and Sudan. Yea, the messages were well received since the women’s organizations like Shan, Mon, Karen and Chin already produced reports on sexual crime happening in those ethnic areas in Burma. So, people are already familiar with the situation. What I did was that this sexual crime will not end unless the regime is gone because it is so deeply rooted already. And they don’t have rules and can not control their soldiers or perhaps they don’t want to control. I would rather say they don’t want to control their soldiers according to our fact findings and what we have learned from the cases. It is clear that the regime is guilty of these crimes and use as a weapon of war. So, we link that sexual crime is a part of political crisis in Burma. We really need to remove the regime or to have a political change in Burma. For that, we have requested that UNSC should intervene in Burma.
Chinland Guardian: Recently the New Light of Myanmar, which is an official daily newspaper in Burma, accused political activists including you of making reports against them. What is your response to them?
Cheery Zahau: Somehow it was not surprise. It is a bit annoying because the way they respond is very unprofessional. We saw the sufferings and the victims of political crisis or those being victimized by the Burmese regime. We are actually the witness. And we just tell the world what we have seen and experienced. The regime denied and responded in that way but no one believes that. In the newspaper, they said that we talked with the western governments. I think it is the regime that relies on other governments such as China and India, not us. They are just like one of their mottoes: Those relying on external support are like the handle of the axe.
Chinland Guardian: Thank you very much.
Cheery Zahau: Thank you.