Maggi Quadrini and Mie Mie share their experiences at a peace conference hosted by the Karenni National Women’s Organization.
The Karenni State Women’s Conference for Peace, held in Loikaw from 13 to 15 May 2019 and hosted by the Karenni National Women’s Organization (KNWO), saw over 500 young men and women attend to take part in a broader dialogue on women’s peace and security. Attendees included representatives from various districts including Loikaw, Bawleke, and Shan-Kayah border areas, as well as members of parliament, representatives from ethnic political parties, ethnic armed organizations and civil society organizations.
(Karenni, in its context here, refers to all sub-ethnic groups dwelling in Karenni State, namely Kayah, Kayan, Kayaw, Geko Geba, Yintale, Yinbaw, Paku Karen, and Manu Manaw. When the term Kayah is used, it does not represent all those sub-ethnic groups but only Kayah. The name of Karenni State was changed to Kayah State by a pro-Burmese government group in 1952 without the consent of the entire Karenni people. Therefore, many still feel uneasy today using the term Kayah publicly.)
KNWO was founded on 10 March 1993, with the goal of working towards a society where Karenni women have equal rights and opportunities. The goal of the conference was to provide a space for meaningful interaction between different groups and individuals in Karenni State, to discuss the regional and State challenges in women’s access to peace and equality. Women’s rights in Myanmar have been compromised due to long-held patriarchal beliefs that give preferential treatment to men in political and social arenas.
“Men do not want women to be leaders,” says June Eh Nar, a staff member with the women’s empowerment program at KNWO. “This type of conference is an opportunity for women and men to come together to discuss and make decisions about politics.”
The conference included information-sharing sessions on the peace process, including a critique by a representative of the Women’s League of Burma on the Gender Equality Principles of the National Accord from the third Union Peace Conference – 21st Century Panglong Conference (UPC). The critique suggests that the strategy for promoting women’s participation in the peace process should be revised with recommendations that are less broad and hold a higher standard of State accountability. As they are currently written, the principles are deemed weak and likely to be ineffective, according to the Women’s League of Burma analysis paper released in October 2018.
Marie Tun, the Secretary of the Kayah State Democratic Party, says there are a lot of challenges women in particular face as members of parliament.
“Men assume that women cannot handle a heavy workload. They think we don’t know as much as them so they make it more difficult for us to access opportunities,” she says.
Tun will be running in Myanmar’s 2020 national election and notes that the conference is a good opportunity for people to come together and learn from each other’s diverse experiences, and work towards solutions.
“For many attending, they are learning how to support their communities through different principles and policies,” she adds. “Coming here, I see so many young people who can start thinking about being leaders in their country in the next generation.”
A panel discussion included five speakers from various sectors representing the thematic areas of policy recommendations which include politics, society, security, economics, land and natural resources. The panelists revised the agreements and commitments made at UPC and unanimously expressed frustration at the stalls in negotiations and lack of opportunities for input by minority groups.
In her address on the security sector, Daw Khin Ma Myo, Founder and Executive Director of the Myanmar Institute of Peace and Security stated, “the whole peace process needs to be reviewed,” and went on to say that the ministry representatives making decisions need to be more diverse. “We should listen to the voices of the people by inviting them to the consultations.”
According to a report published by KNWO in 2016 on Karenni women and the peace process, women from Karenni State are not politically engaged and there are few political awareness programs in the state. Perhaps not surprisingly, family members and society do not support women’s participation in politics because it goes against traditional and religious values and entrenched patriarchal norms. The report suggests that awareness of human rights and gender equality would help men treat women with respect and that engagement and cooperation with men should not be overlooked as a pathway to promote women’s rights.
Karenni State is one of Myanmar’s many ethnic states that continues to experience the brunt of a brutal civil war lasting over 70 years. The safety and security of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) remains a concern for the ethnic communities across the state. For example, KNWO General Secretary Mie Mie says women are at an increased risk of sexual violence in conflict.
“Women who pass through areas occupied by the Myanmar Army to get to their farms are not safe. Sometimes women who are pregnant hear the bullets and fighting waging – and they are afraid to work which effects their livelihoods,” she says.
A lack of rule of law combined with limited awareness among local people on gender-based violence has exacerbated the threat to women’s overall well-being. There was a collective call for the government to adopt laws that have harsher repercussions for perpetrators of violence against women in all forms. A statement released in Burmese and English at the end of the conference made calls for the respect of ethnic people in line with principles of democratic governance, specifically as it relates to the controversial decision made over the course of the conference to keep the newly inaugurated statue of General Aung San in the state capital, Loikaw.
Human rights organizations in Loikaw have made it a priority to do more to work with communities on ending violence in all its forms in their communities. However, this has been made difficult by a lack of resources and access. Groups in Karenni State providing assistance are religious leaders, village elders, youth leaders, women’s rights organizations, and legal-aid groups.
The recommendations and suggestions made at the conference will be brought to the next UPC with the hope that key stakeholders will take seriously the need to have women involved in decision-making processes. There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that when women are involved in matters of peace and security, there is a higher likelihood of successful negotiations that benefit even the most marginalized groups in society.
The key actors at the UPC would do well to prioritize the participation of women in the country’s much-needed implementation of stronger measures on women’s peace and security.
Maggi Quadrini works in communications for non-profit on various projects along the Thai-Myanmar border focusing on gender equality.
Mie Mie is the General Secretary at the Karenni National Women’s Organization. She is interested in women’s issues and advancing equality in Burma through community consultations and initiatives led by women’s voices.