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April 14, 2008

Please Set Me Free

long necked women of thailand kayan tribe

Zember's sister removes her coil while her grandmother looks on.

Photo Credit: Jack Picone

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Zember’s coil required almost two hours to be removed by her skilled elder sister (it takes even longer to put on). The women wear the coils, which are made by Burmese craftsmen, from childhood, starting with four or five rings and adding more each year as they grow accustomed to the bruising and discomfort caused by the weight on their collar bones. They sleep in them and pad their necks with leaves to prevent chafing and sores. Not even the Kayans know for sure how the tradition originated. One theory claims the rings were designed to deter attacks from tigers (which grab victims by the neck), while another says they were meant to lessen the women’s beauty, to ward off men from rival tribes.

One of Zember’s friends, Ma Lo, 24, who has also removed her neck rings, says the women are punished for doing anything modern, like using cell phones or computers. “The owners of the villages dock our wages,” she says. “They say it ruins our traditional image and tourists won’t pay.” In fact, the two women receive no salary at all now, and their refugee status prevents them from finding other work.

Zember, who hopes to become a nurse, admits she has only a fuzzy idea of what life abroad might be like if she escapes. “I learned on the Internet that there are more sheep than people in New Zealand,” she laughs. But she knows a bit about the West from the backpackers she sees. “The girls look so free and sexy, and their eyes shine,” she says. “I stare at them and feel even more determined to fight to get out of here.”

Click here to see more photos of the long-neck women — with and without their coils.

Tell us what you think - we'll send your letters to the Thai embassy and the UNHCR.
Or, donate to LinkHandsForHumanity.com

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