Including women in the peacemaking process could bring about a speedier and more durable resolution to Myanmar's ethnic conflicts, activists say.
Daw Ja Nan, vice president of non-govern-ment organisation Nyein (Shalom) Foundation, said sustainable peace required the involvement of all citizens but women were normally excluded from the process, both formally and informally.
“We can't say there is progress towards peace unless we see participation of women in the process. Conflict not only impacts and concerns the two groups but also the public, especially women, children and the elderly,” she said at a recent workshop.
“Despite the fact women are affected by war or conflict, they have very few chances to express their experiences and feelings, which can be a very effective and important mechanism to encourage decision-makers to construct a sustainable peace agreement,” she said.
She was speaking at an April 24-25 civil society workshop on women, peace and security that was jointly organised by the Women Organisation Network of Myanmar (WON) and Nyein Foundation.
The workshop brought together a range of gender experts, who discussed strategies for advocating women to participate in the current peace process.
It also noted some successes, such as the inclusion of women in region-level peace negotiations and parliamentary peace-making teams.
Daw Susana Hla Hla Soe from Karen Women's Action Group, a member of WON, said these set important examples for other women but there was still much opposition when they sought leadership or decision-making roles.
“We first encouraged Karen women to join the peace process telling how they could be very effective for bringing about peace. But sometimes they were ignored because it was breaking with a longstanding cultural practice,” she said.
“No one gave them a chance willingly, including the male Karen leaders. We were even told, ‘You women don't know about war, we have been fighting for 60 years',” she said. “But we need to push for our rights and not wait for anyone to do it for us.”
Daw Ja Seng Khon said resistance to efforts to empower women was encountered not only among the upper echelons of power.
“When I worked for [a women's] education and capacity building program in Kachin State, I was told that I was ‘arousing domestic violence in households'. I am not provoking women to go against or fight with their husbands but to get an education and build their capacity, and to escape their ignorance so that they can move forwards,” she said.
U Than Htike Aung, a member of the Karuna Charity Group based in Maubin, Ayeyarwady Region, said it was essential that invariably male leaders were made aware of women's views.
“As a man, I can feel empathy but can't imagine how miserable a pregnant woman must feel when she is running for her life in a conflict area, sometimes holding her young child,” he said. “No one can really comprehend her feelings, how much she must long for peace.
“We need to encourage more women, especially at the grassroots level, to share their experiences, feelings, ideas and needs. They are effective tools in ensuring equality and justice in the peacemaking process.”
U Than Htike Aung said women should also be given a greater role in public life, including formal positions of power.
“In my opinion, [women] are effective at negotiating … they are more patient,” he said.
Speakers also discussed the need to lobby lawmakers to reconsider a provision in the Ward and Village-tract Administration Bill that grants power only to the heads of groups of 10 households so as to give women a greater to participate in local decision-making.
Research on the issue conducted by NGOs in 2010-11 in seven states and regions found that leadership roles are overwhelmingly associated with and held by men, from the household level to community development and local authorities.
In survey areas, less than 3 percent of members of village general administration departments were women and the highest position accorded to a woman was that of a clerk. Local administration groups comprise the heads of 10-household groups and in larger villages, the heads of every 100 households.
In its most recent observations to the govern-ment, the Committee for the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) noted that Myanmar had low levels of women's participation on decision-making and public life and it said this was “a matter of great concern”.
To rectify the imbalance, the Myanmar National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women is being drafted and will “place a high priority on accelerating women's meaningful participation in decision-making and public life”, according to the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement.
In terms of peacebuilding efforts, Ms Rachel Gasser from Swiss Peace said UN Security Council resolution 1325 underlined the need for addressing the impact of war on women and representing women's experience of conflict for the maintenance of international peace and security.
Another speaker, a female member of the 88 Generation, said she planned to lobby for amendments to the constitution that would make it more inclusive for women. But she said the capacity for change rested in the hands of women themselves.
“If we want to amend the constitution to represent all people, women first need to learn about it,” she said.
“In my experience, women only have equal rights in one respect. Our brothers were sentenced to 65 years in prison and so were we – the only equal opportunities for women under the previous government was in terms of punishment.”