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Women’s Participation: The Pivot for a Peaceful Burma

By Burma Partnership  •  March 8, 2010

“The education and empowerment of women throughout the world cannot fail to result in a more caring, tolerant, just and peaceful life for all.”  — Aung San Suu Kyi, 1995

The women of Burma face oppression on multiple levels. Under the military regime, women are barred from holding any positions of power. They must deal with the ongoing day-to-day realities of extreme poverty, as well as lack of healthcare and education. Their bodies have been used as battlegrounds throughout decades of conflict. Moreover, they must face societal gender stereotypes, according to which they are treated as subordinates and objects in their day-to-day life.

Despite palpable barriers, the women of Burma have worked tirelessly to take on essential roles in the fight for peace, stability and democracy in Burma. Their resistance takes various forms—sometimes they are public political figures, but most frequently, women engage in everyday and often invisible acts of resistance to protect and support their communities and country.

The officials didnt just stop usthey cursed at us, grabbed some of us, and threw people into trucks. We decided to sit on the pavement and hold one anothers arms as a human chain to prevent our arrest. –Yin Mar Htun, a female protester describing the crackdown on protests during the Saffron Revolution

There are currently 177 female political prisoners in Burma, ranging in age from 20 to 65. They are people like Mie Mie, who was forced to go into hiding after standing firmly in the streets leading the beginnings of the Saffron Revolution. They are mothers like Nilar Thein, who had to leave behind her child as the police chased her down. They are labor activists like Su Su Nway, who saw forced labor in her community and sought legal ways to end it, only to be thrown in prison. To learn more about these women, see the Women’s League of Burma report Courage to Resist and the new report by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners on women political prisoners.

In many areas, women from ethnic communities have been invaluable healthcare workers, peace builders, and community leaders, often putting themselves at great personal risk. They maintain homes, schools, and cultural traditions, as men are frequently absent as soldiers and migrant workers abroad. Women’s resistance has recently surfaced in Rangoon, as thousands of female factory workers have courageously gone on strike to demand their rights.

The current epidemic of violence against women must be stopped. We must resist the patterns of physical violence that deprive women of security, safety, and the right to health, education, and food. Impunity must cease; there must be justice for the state-sponsored rape, torture, and harassment of women.

The problem goes beyond physical violence—the silencing of women is a menacing, though less visible violence. Women must be able to have a strong voice in their communities and their full participation in peace building and national reconciliation is indispensable for a future democratic Burma. This is not only a matter of women’s rights, but also of building a more stable society. Numerous studies have shown that women are pinnacle players for a country’s economic, political, and social growth. As international and domestic actors search for solutions to Burma’s crises, women’s involvement in the process of national reconciliation is an answer that cannot be ignored.

The military regime’s 2008 Constitution, set to be enacted through this year’s elections, will not only entrench military rule, it will serve to enshrine gender inequality in Burma, as it restricts women from most positions of power. Now, more than ever, in the lead up to the elections and as the possibility of conflict looms, peace and reconciliation is needed in Burma. Gender equality is not a minor issue to be dealt with later—it affects not only the women of Burma, but the people of the entire country and region.

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