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Human Rights

Bringing women to the heart of peace in Myanmar

“You can’t just add women-and-stir” said May Oo Mutraw speaking about the inadequate efforts to ‘include’ women in the peace process.

Women’s participation in decision-making roles in Myanmar is extremely low, a trend reflected in Myanmar’s national peace process. 

Trocaire in Myanmar

(l to r): Women take part in a meeting of a micro-credit scheme supported by Trócaire on Bilugyun island; a mother and her child at a camp for displaced people in northern Myanmar; Agatha Nu Nu of Trócaire in Myanmar with Hong Sar Htaw, one of the young women who receive training on leadership from Trócaire’s partners in Myanmar. (Photos: Eoghan Rice) 

From the beginning, the peace process has failed to engage women and therefore has inadequately considered gender issues. Women were largely excluded from the drafting of the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), while the Union Peace Conference (UPC), the first political dialogue since the NCA was signed last October, took place in January with women accounting for only 7 per cent of attendees. This was despite the UPC proclaiming itself as an “inclusive” political dialogue. 

At the launch of Alliance for Gender Inclusion in the Peace Process (AGIPP), an inspiring group of women shared their experiences and discussed the barriers faced by women involved in the peace process. 

Inclusions, representation and participation are not the same. Participation involves a deep and meaningful involvement. As AGGIP’s briefing noted “responding to criticism about women’s exclusion from the peace process by slotting in a few women as observers is an inadequate response.” 

Women who attended the Union Peace Conference reported that they faced intimidation when they tried to engage in the discussions. 

Other women reported feeling patronised, men would refer to them as “girl” or “little sister” rather than calling them by the correct title and showing them the respect they deserve. Title is important in society in Myanmar, where calling someone by the incorrect title can be seen as a sign of disrespect. 

“Women’s participation in public life should not be a choice between this, that or the other,” said Khin Ma Ma Myo speaking about the personal challenges women face when trying to balance work, political life and family commitments.  Women are excluded from important events when consideration is not given to practical issues like childcare or accommodation and facilities for mothers with children. These are simple but significant barriers preventing women’s attendance.

Many of these barriers exist at every level within society in Myanmar, in which social and cultural practices limit women’s involvement in decision-making and leadership roles. There has been a failure to adequately lower the practical barriers to women’s participation in the peace process thus far. 

The women who did attend the UPC had a strong unified voice. This, however, was not enough. Khin Ma Ma Myo noted that women’s discussion points were omitted from the daily discussion summaries.  

Khin Ma Ma Myo said that on the final day of the conference men were given ample time for speaking but when it was finally her turn to address the audience she was told that the quorum would break for lunch and that she could speak when they returned – when they returned from the lunch break, her time to speak was cut in half.

Women for peace in Myanmar

The Alliance for Gender Inclusion in the Peace Process (AGIPP) seeks to improve women’s representation in the national peace process. (Photo: Alison Herron)

Women’s perspectives and women’s issues are often left out simply because men don’t understand them. In Myanmar this is enhanced by societal and cultural norms and is a major obstacles to women’s participation. Breaking these cultural norms does not happen overnight, it is a long term goal and the process will take time. Engaging men in the process is key. 

At the UPC, male facilitators were not gender sensitive. However, the panellists noted that we cannot blame men for not promoting equality, for not using gender sensitive language and for not highlighting women’s issues, if they do not have the capacity to do so. We need to build up capacity of both men and women involved in the peace process to understand gender sensitivities. Engaging men, changing attitudes, behaviours and building capacity is critical to achieve success for women, peace and security in Myanmar.

With the new government coming into power these women’s alliances are considering how to engage and what to recommend. May Oo Mutraw noted that it took eight years of negotiation and lobbying for some of the ethnic armed organisations to accept women’s involvement. “Now we need to be strategic, we need to know and understand which alliances to make,” she says.

A clear-cut policy for enhancing the role of women particularly in decision-making is needed. A 30% gender quota is being introduced to support women’s involvement in political life, but it is equally important to remove barriers that prevent women from engaging and participating. 

Nang Phyu Phyu Lin captured the feeling in the room when she summarised “the 30% are coming – do not fear us.” 

The time for women’s inclusion is now – change is happening and it is not something to fear.

By Alison Heron of Trócaire in Myanmar

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