‘Girl Determined’ Program Giving Burmese Girls A Much-Needed Public Voice

burmese girl

Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma, is a place tucked between Laos, Thailand, and Bangladesh, and borders the south of China. It is also a country synonymous with lacking many basic human rights across the board.

UNICEF estimates more than half the country’s child population are uneducated, and are made to work with their parents, or forced into child prostitution, and child labor. In 2002 the Human Rights Watch claimed Burma was rated as the country with the highest percentage of child soldiers.

Myanmar possesses rich natural and human resources but is ranked only 149 out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index. With a population of approximately 50 million, Myanmar faces economic challenges, an escalating HIV/AIDS epidemic, and health and education systems that are strained due to limited resources. Children’s access to quality education, adequate healthcare, and economic security is increasingly threatened.

Girls having access to education is estimated to be capped at 8 years of age, which is not even halfway through elementary school.


Added to the already disadvantaged upbringing most young people get in Myanmar, in 2013 the country was wracked with a civil war by Christian rebel fighters who attacked the Buddhist majority Burmese government because they were sick of being discriminated against.

It left many Burmese displaced and confused about whether their country was going to be divided, and of course along with conflict comes many other terrors that are unduly inflicted upon everyday people. Given that they are a country only just leaving behind their military-rule past, there is much work to be done rebuilding and working toward and equal democratic society. Often when this is the case, girls are the last to be prioritized, especially in a culture where patriarchy has been dominant and equal rights hasn’t.

A humanitarian group determined not to allow young girls to be forgotten in the democratic future of the country is Girl Determined. It is a non-profit launched in 2010 by Brooke Zobrist who wanted to create a community for girls in Burma to get the support they needed in everyday life, but also be equipped with ways to work toward a social, political and economical future for themselves.


One of the ways they do this is hold regular weekly workshops called “Circles” where young girls have the opportunity to speak openly and confidently about issues affecting them. It sounds like a small thing, but it is not.

“School is dominated by parrot-style repetition and there is little to no free speaking or sharing of opinions, ideas, synthesis or asking questions,” says Brooke.

They work with girls aged 12-17 across Burma’s remote regions as well as more populated urban centers, and give the girls access to knowledge about healthcare, decision-making and political life.

These “lean in” style workshops are actively reversing the stigma against being a girl in a country like Myanmar, which is often considered a disadvantage. Only about half of girls in Burma are enrolled in school past the primary level, and just 18 percent of girls complete their secondary level education, according to UNICEF. Furthermore, adolescent girls in the country are often restricted to traditional gender roles, and can face poverty, violence and early marriage.


“Our weekly programs have a lot of discussion and use experiential activities to draw out learning points and get girls to think for themselves about topics like being a girl, communicating with peers or importance of inter-faith and inter-ethnic communities,” Brooke told The Huffington Post. “Some of the girls will just grab hold of these newfound opportunities to explore their ideas, speak up and consider a new role for women and girls in society.”

“For almost all of the girls we will see a noticeable difference in a girls’ ability to express herself — her needs, opinions and her wants. Several girls have become active in their communities … and are even pushing for greater inclusion of women in the local village councils.”

One of the major factors currently deterring women from political roles is the lack of representation in their government. Despite the now-heroic status of political revolutionary Aung San Suu Kyi, the Guardian reports less than 6% of parliamentary representatives are women, which is the lowest in their global region, and at a local level, the numbers are even worse.


The Girl Determined program has been giving Burmese girls a platform like never before, and it has been getting the attention of the government, welfare groups and even the media. In 2013 as part of International Day of the Girl, around 800 GD girls from around the country gathered in the city of Rangoon to speak publicly about the rights for teenage girls.

While the government didn’t respond to their bold display, the media coverage enabled specific Women’s organization who happen to be working on with the country’s leaders on a National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women, to include issues concerning the younger generation to be included in this important initiative.

The name Girl Determined exemplifies what the program is trying to instill into the next generation of women in Burma: the determination to live an equal and full life despite a history excluding these concepts for women.


“Evaluations show that regular participation in Girl Determined is having a deep impact on girls’ view of themselves in the world. The girls tell us that they have an increased desire to assert themselves in making decisions that affect their futures, including choosing school over work and directly addressing violence in their homes and communities. Girls who have completed the program know that leadership is not just for boys and men,” says the website about the outcomes being shown.

A country cannot hope to progress if half the population is ignored and not included at every step of the way in terms of development and economic growth. We are seeing a worldwide movement where organizations and governments are stressing the importance of education both girls and boys, in order to have a higher functioning society. It’s not about dismantling family values and cultural traditions, it is about enabling young girls, who are borne into societies steeped in patriarchy and inequality, to know that they have the right to raise their voice and make their own decision as to how they envision their futures.

“We are sparking a movement of girls with leadership skills to advocate for their own rights and a future that does not re-create the risks they now face,” says the website about their mission.

If a girl is as determined as the Burmese girls are, we hope there is no government, no militia, no organization or culture that will stop them.



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