Men’s Exchange: The Unexpected Next Step in the Eradication of Gender-Based Violence in the Migrant Community

WRITER: Emma Harlan 

A Men’s Exchange program might not seem like an obvious step in a mission to end gender-based violence within the migrant community. Shouldn’t the focus be on the empowerment of women? Well, after twenty years of working on the issue through MAP’s Women’s Exchange programs, migrant women have realized that they should be able to work with the men in their lives—not in opposition to them. However, in order to do that, the men were going to need some training.

On August 3rd and 4th, MAP ran the first ever Men’s Exchange: Training of Trainers (TOT) event. With support from Canada Fund, this project aimed to “combat gender-based violence among migrant and refugee women through social networking and capacity building.” The event worked to tackle the issue of gender-based violence in a new way--by getting the men involved in the process. Over two days, men peer leaders from five different locations bordering Thailand and Myanmar worked to develop the skills to run Men’s Exchange (ME) events in their own communities.


Since 1999, MAP’s Women’s Exchange (WE) program has helped migrant women in Thailand, Myanmar, and even the UK develop spaces where they can learn about their rights, share their experiences, and collaborate with each other to find solutions to the problems they face. While gender-based violence is not the only issue tackled in WE spaces, it is certainly a prominent one.

Now, migrant women have decided that, in order to create the most effective change, the men in their lives have to have the same discussions about women’s rights that they do. Therefore, the idea of a ME program, where men could discuss their roles in supporting the empowerment of the women in their lives, was created. The goal of the program is to provide a space that will help migrant men prepare to accept and support the shifting power dynamics and gender roles that migrant women are working towards.

More specifically, the ME program, in collaboration with the fifteen pre-existing WE chapters, will fight to eradicate gender-based violence in the migrant community.

On the first day of the TOT conference, twenty men traveling from Myawaddy, Maesot, and the refugee camps Nu Poe, Maela, and Umphiem filed into a hotel conference room in Maesot and started to introduce themselves to each other over Burmese roti bread. Already familiar with MAP’s WE program, they were intrigued by the budding ME program and were excited to learn how they could start their own ME programs in their communities.


Each day was filled to the brim with information, activities, and discussion, all led by women trainers. The first day of the training covered topics from the history of the MAP organization to the most effective ways to run an engaged exchange group to the different forms that power can take.

As migrants, the participants were familiar with being stripped of basic rights and of experiencing gross abuses of power from employers as well as from the governments of Thailand and Myanmar. One man talked about his experience living in Mae Sot for the past twelve years. He said that, even though Mae Sot is very close to the border of Myanmar, the city does not have the same feeling as the country he grew up in. On top of that, it is a particularly dangerous city for migrants because, knowing how dense the migrant population is, police are quick to pull over anyone and check for papers, asking for a bribe from anyone who doesn’t have the correct documentation on them at that time.

And yet, the attendees of the conference were aware that their goal was not to fight for their own empowerment but to be trained to build up the women and children in their lives. One man said that the most important thing he learned while at the training was how to use a skill called power sharing. At the conference, the men talked about the way that using power over others would decrease others’ power within themselves. However, by simply stepping back and diffusing some of their own power to the others in their lives, they could use power sharing to help their children, wives, and community members use and develop their own powers within.

As another man said, the most important first step he could take was to focus on sharing power within his own family. “First my family, then community, then state, then my country. Everything starts small, right?”


The first day ended late. After eight hours packed with information and activities, the participants came back for an evening session that focused on community building, finishing off the night with a karaoke session that featured dozens of Burmese classics.


Early the next morning, participants were excited to greet their karaoke duet partners from the prior night as they started another long day of training. The second day began with a discussion of social norms and led into the topic of gender roles. As migrants, the men were familiar with facing unrealistic rules and expectations, being expected to assimilate to a new culture while simultaneously being treated as outsiders.

Yet, they knew the women in their lives faced the same challenges as they did while also being held to additional roles and expectations within their own homes. The trainer told the participants that people lose a part of themselves when they are forced to conform to a role that they never wanted.

After the lessons were done, participants took time to work in groups on their detailed plans for a ME conference in their own communities. The plans covered every detail, from supplies, to cost, to transportation. Following the presentation of his ME plan, a participant said that in his community, people use violence rather than verbal communication to solve problems. He hopes that by starting a ME in his community, he can change the way that people approach conflict.


The ME meetings that were planned during the TOT conference are each taking place at the end of August. In November, each of the peer leaders will again meet for a ME TOT debrief to discuss the impact of the five brand new ME programs in Maesot, Mywaddy, Nu Poe camp, Maela camp, and Umphiem camp. With more funding in the future, hopefully these ME groups will continue to thrive and multiply. “I want every NGO from every community to do this training,” said one participant.

Although not the most expected answer to the question of gender-based violence, the Men’s Exchange program is an important step towards a world where migrant women can feel safe and valued within their homes and communities. While it is up to women to lead the way, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to give men the tools to know how to follow.