Published in the Fall 2008 issue of SSA Magazine

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SSA Alumna Abigail Erikson combats violence against women and girls in two Burmese refugee camps

-Charles Whitaker

Mae Hong Song Province is a bucolic stretch of territory nestled in the mountains of Northwest Thailand on the border of Burma. Its gorgeous scenery and languid pace make it an attractive destination for tourists from all over Southeast Asia and beyond.

But it is not just tourists who flock to Mae Hong Song. The province is also the site of two refugee camps, home to nearly 25,000 Burmese natives who fled the violence and upheaval in their homeland for safe haven in Thailand. In these overcrowded settlements— where life is often difficult and the future uncertain—SSA alumna Abigail Erikson serves as a resource and a lifeline.

For the last year, as the genderbased violence (GBV) program manager for the International Rescue Committee's Thailand Country Program, Erikson shuttles between the two refugee camps, overseeing a program designed to directly meet the safety, health, psychosocial, and justice needs of women and girls who are the survivors of gender-based violence, as well as challenge beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that perpetuate or condone violence against women.

"The GBV program is essential to ensuring the protection and increased well-being of women and girls by building the capacity of the community to meet the direct needs of women and girl survivors. Our work on responding to—and preventing— gender-based violence helps not only individual women and girls, but also families, and the community as a whole," Erikson says. "Our idea is that when we work on gender-based violence, we are not just working on one issue. We work to rebuild social cohesion and promote healthy communities where people can live in peace."

The two camps in which Erikson works lay on the Thai/Burma border. The larger of the two—about an hour from Erikson's home in the province's largest community, also named Mae Hong Song—houses close to 21,000 refugees. The other, which is three hours away, is the home to another 4,000 Burmese. The living conditions are cramped, made even more difficult by the storms that hit the area during the rainy season.

The refugees, by and large, come from Burma's Karenni state, the victims of continued persecution by the country's ruling military junta. The settlements are the second-longest-standing refugee camps in the world: Many of the residents fled as long ago as 1988, when the ruling junta cracked down on university students and Buddhist monks who were demonstrating against political oppression in the country.

Erikson is quick to point out that the Karenni refugees, who she describes as "incredibly resilient," are no more prone to domestic violence or sexual assault than other people. Many of the women who seek her program's treatment and counsel were the victims of violence as they fled Burma trying to get to the Thai border. But she also notes that life in the tightly packed camps is confining. Most of the refugees have no clear path to the future—no idea whether they will attempt to return to Burma or resettle to another country. It is an emotionally combustible state.

"These are long-term, closed refugee camps with high levels of stagnation, frustration, and hopelessness among the camp residents," Erikson says. "It is certainly a context where it is quite easy for violence to happen."

The larger camp has two Women's Community Centers, which offer short-term shelter at any given time for a half dozen or so survivors of domestic violence and their children. The GBV program's 30 staff members based in and out of camp provide safety and psychosocial support to victims of rape or domestic abuse, referrals for health care and legal assistance, and formal and informal information exchanges to women and girls about the impacts of gender-based violence. The women's centers also offer space for training in crafts that can help them economically, such as sewing and weaving.

Undergirding all of the work that Erikson and the International Rescue Committee are doing in Thailand is a commitment to capacity building in the community. As such, Erikson's team also enlists men in the effort to curb gender-based violence and create a community that promotes nonviolence.

The "Men Involved in Peace" project runs workshops and discussion activities about gender, relationships, and violence, provides regular trainings to leaders in the community, created a community theater group to explore issues through drama, and produced a short video on the positive role of men in stopping and responding to violence in the community. Over the four years the program has been running, it has reached more than 10,000 men.

"These are communities that were not necessarily exposed to the idea that violence against women is wrong," says Erikson, who speaks Thai and is learning Burmese. "And that's partly just because we're working in a different culture, and they're in a different place in terms of their own community development."

Erikson's work routinely has her working 14-hour days as she moves between the two camps, trains staff, manages budgets, and does clinical oversight. "I monitor all the cases that our staff respond to," she says. Working on such difficult issues is hard in any circumstances, doing so in refugee camps, where her multi-ethnic staff speaks eight different languages (with English in common) is "definitely formidable," she acknowledges.

Fortunately, Erikson's training, interests, and experiences are perfect preparation for the work. She grew up in Cumberland, Maine, the younger of two children. She says she's always had a profound interest in social justice issues, whether it was the ache she felt when she saw homeless people on the streets of Portland as a small child or the outrage she felt when she learned about the brutally separatist apartheid system in South Africa.

Erikson's interest in social issues only increased during her undergraduate years at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo. While studying for her bachelor's degree in sociology, she had the opportunity to travel to Guatemala for a semester to meet with activists and human rights groups. It was a transformative experience. "When I got back from Guatemala, I had a better sense of the context for my interest in international social justice issues and peace issues," she says.

Following college, Erikson began a career in social services/public health at Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, managing a small family planning clinic in Cortez, Colo. Frustrated by state and federal regulations, she moved to the policy side, working as a public affairs staff person for Planned Parenthood in six states, where she authored the first bill in Colorado that ultimately made emergency contraceptives available for rape survivors in all Colorado hospitals.

Wanting to combine her interests in reproductive health and international issues, she started on a master's degree in public administration at the University of Colorado, where she was awarded an international travel-study grant to Thailand. She stayed on to work for an international NGO, Health and Development Networks, on a project that linked more than 400 community-based organizations to advocate for comprehensive care and treatment options for people living with HIV. She fell in love with the region but also missed clinical work.

"I really enjoy working directly with people, and was particularly interested in gaining clinical skills to work with people who had experienced trauma, especially women. I decided to go back and do my master's degree at the University of Chicago because I felt it's really a versatile degree," Erikson says. "It would allow me build on the rich experience in policy and advocacy work that I'd gained through Planned Parenthood at Health and Development Networks, but also hone my clinical skills, which I had developed working as a rape crisis counselor during college."

Among the benefits of her SSA degree, she says, was that the training provided her with a solid grounding for work with survivors of violence. "I had some amazing professors at the University of Chicago who helped me develop a theoretical framework for working in violence—family violence, violence in communities," she says. "The work I do in the refugee camps is incredibly multifaceted and requires managerial, administrative, advocacy, and political skills. The education and training that I had at the University of Chicago also helped me be prepared for the clinical work, for really understanding case management and psychosocial interventions for survivors of interpersonal violence."

Having spent the bulk of the past six years in Thailand, Erikson says her affinity for the region, the work, and the people has deepened. Though she is far too consumed by work to have to fend off any pangs of homesickness, occasionally she gets a twinge for some of the comforts of home.

"I miss my family. I miss being able to go to yoga class. I miss sushi," she admits. "In my earlier years, I would work with vulnerable and poorer communities abroad and then I would come home [to the US] and have a lot of guilt around the fact that I could turn on the TV or go out and have a nice meal. But I've learned that I move through different realities and I can't compare them. I can only be as present and as respectful as possible in the different situations."

Erikson does not believe she will do international work forever. "I feel that I've got another three to four years before I really would want to come home and be closer to family." In the meantime, she is enjoying her current reality. "I love my job," she says. "I'm fulfilled even on my most difficult days. I have a very profound sense of appreciation for just having the opportunity to have this experience and work with the people I work with. They are my true teachers."