The two organizations receiving the 2005 Women's Rights Prize are distinct but share much history; the groups overlap in purpose, goals and some membership. Both were founded in reaction to the oppression of minority women of Burma.
The Shan State of Burma, bordering China, Laos and Thailand, is home to ethnic Shan who make up approximately 9 percent of Burma's diverse population of 43 million people. Since the mid-1990s, civil unrest and brutal treatment by the Burmese military have forced an estimated 300,000 people out of Shan State and into Thailand where they have no legal status. For many women, this translates into a sentence of servitude in Thai brothels, debt bondage and the ever-present danger of physical violence.
A group of Shan women active in Thailand and along the Thai-Burma border founded the Shan Women's Action Network (SWAN) in March of 1999 to help supply basic services to women and girls and to promote peace and freedom.
SWAN's projects include operating 12 schools that provide basic literacy skills; a nursery; a community health clinic and outreach education about AIDS and sexually transmitted disease; crisis support for victims of rape and other abuse, including emergency assistance for food, clothing, shelter and medical attention; training workshops teaching leadership skills and providing information about gender issues and democracy; and documenting problems and raising awareness nationally and internationally.
In 2002, SWAN published License to Rape, a report that detailed the cases of 625 women and girls in Shan State who were victims of rape and/or other sexual violence, perpetrated by members of the Burmese military, mostly between 1996 and 2001. The report drew international attention and widespread condemnation of the actions it documented. Since its release, SWAN representatives have appeared at the United Nations and in various forums in Europe, Asia, America and Australia to denounce the military's use of sexual violence and label the actions war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The Burmese regime denies it allows the military to rape or otherwise abuse its citizens with impunity and has charged that SWAN's report is false; the state-run Burmese media accused the women of SWAN of being terrorists and drug-traffickers. And the Burmese government pressured Thailand to crack down on the organization. It now operates underground, its members keeping a low profile, ready to move the office on short notice – which it has been forced to do several times – and still working to be recognized as a legal entity in Thailand.
SWAN is a founding member of the Women's League of Burma.