Yangon, Myanmar – Adjusting her hijab and looking around the class, Dr Thet Htwe starts the day’s lesson with a simple question.
“Who wants to know about the human sexual response?”
Everyone raises their hand, some sheepishly giggling.
In a country where there’s still a debate over the proper word to use for “vagina” and simply talking about sex is considered taboo, Dr Thet Htwe is breaking down barriers.
The 35-year-old Muslim woman is one of the country’s leading teachers of sexual education, travelling around the country to provide classes lasting from one day to one week on subjects from arousal to menstruation, and sexual orientation.
A family doctor by training, Thet Htwe has been teaching sexual education under her organisation, Strong Flowers, since 2016.
In Myanmar, like many countries in Southeast Asia, sex education is not something that’s taught at school so Dr Thet Htwe teaches people of all ages – from teenagers to people in their 60s – and is often hired by companies to run classes for their staff.
|Dr Thet Htwe stands on the balcony of the Strong Flowers centre in Yangon [Victoria Milko/Al Jazeera]
“Many young women learn about these things from their aunties or mothers,” said Thet Htwe. “A lot of times these things are not talked about at all. But then even when these topics are discussed, there is a lot of misinformation.”
The classes also have another role – discussing consent, women’s rights, and tackling sensitive topics including gender-based violence.
According to the United Nations Population Fund, violence against women is a “silent emergency” in Myanmar, characterised by a high level of social acceptance of such abuse and a legal system that fails to create an environment where women are protected.
A common proverb in the country translates to: “If you beat your wife until her bones are broken, she will love you more.”
An estimated 17 percent of married women between the ages of 15 and 49 experienced physical and/or sexual violence from their partner, according to 2017 data from the Ministry of Health and Sport, and the International Coaches Federation, a US-based non-profit.
But experts say the actual number is likely to be much higher because women don’t understand their rights or are afraid to report abuse for fear of the stigma.
“In our society many women do not know that they can say ‘no’,” said Suu May, a 22-year-old woman who took Dr Thet Htwe’s class in 2016. “Not only in relationships, but also with family or in the workplace. Taking this class taught me about consent, and helped me learn to respect myself.”
Dr Thet Htwe said her classes are starting to attract a new type of student as well.
“It used to be almost always just women attending, but there is definitely an increase in the amount of men coming now,” she told Al Jazeera.
While Thet Htwe admits some of the men attending the classes are required to do so by their employers, she’s also noticed an increase in the number of young people who sign up for the class by choice, seeking a safe space in which to discuss sensitive issues.
“For me, it was eye opening and a great learning experience,” said Min Joor, 17, who attended a course on sexual harassment. “I was surprised learning about sexual harassment, because what I knew was different from what we were taught elsewhere.”
Min Joor said when he finished the class he began treating women differently, thinking about the lessons he had learned from Dr Thet Htwe.
“I was the sort of a boy who teased girls a lot, but after the training I tried to be more cautious about it,” he said. “I changed my behaviour, for sure.”
|Strong Flowers material on the wall at the Women Open Spaces office in Yangon where Dr Thet Htwe runs her classes [Victoria Milko/Al Jazeera]
In a country as predominantly Buddhist as Myanmar, Dr Thet Hwe has also become something of an ambassador for religious understanding.
The United Nations has said the country’s military carried out mass killings and gang rapes of the Rohingya minority with “genocidal intent”, and Myanmar’s Muslims have often been the target of abuse and discrimination.
‘Part of the change’
Dr Thet Htwe acknowledges being a hijab-wearing Muslim woman also ends up playing an educational role in classes.
“There are a lot of challenges in this world – and in Myanmar there are a lot of challenges for women as well,” she said. “I would say for Muslim women, the challenges are double.
“When people provide course feedback they often tell me, ‘When we saw you we thought you would say something controversial about culture or religion. But the whole training period we noticed you were similar to us. We noticed you have no major differences from us.'”
While Dr Thet Htwe admits long-lasting societal change will take time, she said her classes do help build understanding between people.
“If from 20 people in a class one person changes or feels they’ve gained something, it’s a positive impact for the entire community,” she said. “But I will continue to so whatever it is I can to spread knowledge and be the part of the change needed in this society. This is my determination.”