Supporting the LGBT+ community in Myanmar: One Chevening Alum’s journey
This Pride Month, we’re celebrating Cheveners working across the globe to improve rights and opportunities for the LGBT+ community. Dr Henry Za Lal Lian works for UNICEF to prevent HIV in adolescents and young people.
I am from Chin State in Myanmar, which is one of the most underdeveloped states in one of the poorest countries in the world. Studying at a world-class institution in the UK like the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine was never a realistic dream for someone like me to have. But through Chevening, I successfully gained a place on its MSc in Tropical Medicine and International Health course in 2018.
After my Chevening year, I returned to Myanmar and joined the United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA) where I coordinated Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Services for the community. We faced several challenges in delivering these services, including social stigma and religious views. These challenges were only worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic and the political turmoil of February 2021.
Sexual health issues can quickly become overlooked during political or civic unrest, but they are often a matter of life and death and must be prioritised, especially for communities who are already marginalised.
Myanmar is a highly religious country and same-sex activity is still illegal under the Penal Code. Combined with the adverse effects of COVID-19, we found out during a crowdsourcing survey that the mental health of young people was suffering as a result. In response, my team at UNFPA collaborated with &Proud (a local queer organisation), to conduct a nationwide study. Unsurprisingly, we found that this law had a dire impact on the mental health of our LGBT+ people. The study can be found on the UNFPA in Myanmar page.
After two years in Myanmar, I joined UNICEF in Zimbabwe as part of the Junior Professional Officer (JPO Program), where I now work as an Adolescent Integrated HIV Prevention Officer. My aim is to ensure that adolescents have access to correct, scientifically backed information about their sexual health to make informed choices and access quality services free from fear or stigma.
Being an international UN employee is a privilege for a Myanmar citizen like me, especially when the young people of my country are being prosecuted for standing up for their rights, and most of them are in exile. I am safe and able to continue working for social causes. I am grateful that my Chevening experience supported me to get where I am today. On top of the technical knowledge I gained, studying in the UK taught me how to thrive in a diverse setting surrounded by people with different cultures and beliefs.
Chevening definitely helped me to grow into a more well-rounded person.
For any Cheveners looking to make a difference in their community, it’s important to remember that you can’t save the world on your own. Prioritise your own mental wellbeing – it’s a marathon, not a sprint. And make sure that you have a strong support network around you. If we all play our part and join together for the greater good, I believe we can make a positive change toward a more tolerant and peaceful world. We can all learn to be a little kinder and remember that at the core of everything, love is, indeed, LOVE.
Happy Pride Month, everyone!