‘Within the Political Structure, Women Are Treated as Decorative’

By Yen Saning 27 January 2014

Despite many changes in Burma in recent years, gender discrimination remains “structural,” according to Salai Isaac Khen, executive director of the Gender and Development Initiative Myanmar.

His Rangoon-based research and advocacy group is working to change that in Burma, a deeply religious and conservative nation long-isolated by a military junta that only ceded power in 2011. Formed in February 2010, the initiative focuses on three main issues—gender equality, indigenous people’s rights, and women’s participation in ongoing peace talks between the central government and ethnic armed rebel groups.

Salai Isaac Khen sat down with The Irrawaddy to talk about the importance of women’s voices in the peace process and gender equality—or a lack thereof—as the country continues to undergo an economic and political transformation.

Question:Why is it important to have gender sensitivity in the peace process and development?

Answer: When considering a community or country’s development, one cannot neglect the gender equality perspective, because in a society or a country, men’s and women’s proportional development is essential. Sometimes, when a society or economy develops, control and decision-making power is not equal. Men tend to have more power to make decisions. Men tend to have more control over development, resources and benefits. In most societies, women are left behind in this case. That’s why a gender perspective should be considered in the process of sustainable development.

There will be discussions on a ceasefire, the rehabilitation process, DDR [disarmament, demobilization and reintegration]. In those discussions, women’s participation is important. Women were mainly the victims of [Burma’s civil] war. So, it will be more comprehensive when women’s perspectives are accounted for in peace discussions. In interpreting the term ‘security,’ what a woman understands the term to mean may differ from what a man thinks. When a woman says ‘security,’ they take into account their right to freedom of movement and protection from gender-based violence. Men sometimes don’t take these things into consideration. The reconstruction process will have better results if it includes women’s perspectives on issues of war that have affected them.

Women’s participation in the peace process is still quite rare. Women are in a situation where they do not have the right to participate. In a country where conflicts exist like Burma, the government has to draw up an action plan for women’s peace and security, according to United Nations Security Council decision 1325.

[The resolution “reaffirms the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction and stresses the importance of their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security.”]

Men have been fighting this civil war continuously, being trained militarily. When they don’t need to fight [if hopes for an end to the civil war are realized], what will they do? They need to be trained to fit in with a democratic and peaceful society. What can happen, when they are disarmed and become civilians again, is what we call a ‘masculinity crisis.’ In the transitional process, we need to help them to start again as civilians after they drop their guns. In the peace process, not only the organizations involved need to transform, but the transition of individuals within these organizations is also important.

Soldiers coming home after fighting in wars are prone to committing domestic violence, according to other countries’ experiences. That’s why gender issues need to be considered in the transitional period.

Q: Why have few women—on both sides—been involved in peace negotiations?

A: Who has said only soldiers can negotiate in the peace process? The current peace process seems to allow only soldiers and ethnic armed groups’ leaders to discuss, mostly generals from the government and soldiers-turned-politicians from ethnic groups. For sure, military [personnel] must be involved, but it [peace] is not possible with only the military’s involvement.

Women’s participation in fighting the war has been smaller, but the peace process is not about discussing military operations. Women can and should participate.

Q: Why is it that women are not considered to have a role in public life? Do women also think along these lines?

A: Some women themselves think that they don’t have a role in those sectors. They think that it’s enough that men do it. Men also are not much impressed when women take these roles. Some women also do not express a desire to do them.

Q: Is it the nature of the work in these cases?

A: The perception is more important than the nature of work. People perceive that women are not suited to heavy and difficult work. Some educated and rich women don’t want to carry bags themselves, and rather ask a man to carry them. Some women themselves are corrupted and they do not think that they can do it. Not only do men keep women on the sidelines, some women also want to keep it that way.

Q: Is there a way to balance traditional values with a push for greater gender equality?

A: From a human rights perspective. Whether in decision-making or peace negotiations, it should be a woman’s right to participate.

Q: Some rights groups have advocated for a 30 percent quota applied to parliamentary seats to ensure women’s participation in government. What is the difference between this and the 25 percent of seats in Parliament reserved for the military?

A: We are aiming for civilian supremacy. Fundamentally, the 25 percent military reservation means militarization. Thirty percent women’s participation is not militarization. At the very least, if a quota system is enacted, it would not be based on appointments but rather elections, which is at variance with the military’s appointment.

We want to provide a space to women so that the political parties and voters will encourage women’s participation in the process. Women are facing structural discrimination—within the structure I feel they are treated as decorative, but what is their role in decision-making?