In Person

Longtime Activist Returns to Her Studies, Aiming to Change the System for Women

By San Yamin Aung 19 June 2017

YANGON — Prominent Myanmar women’s rights and peace activist Ma May Sabe Phyu received a fellowship to study for a one-year Master in Public Administration (MPA) program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in the US this year.

Alumni of the program include the first female president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is also a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, and the former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Ma May Sabe Phyu, a director of the Gender Equality Network (GEN), and co-founder of the Kachin Peace Network and the Kachin Women Peace Network, won the US State Department’s International Women of Courage Award for her tireless efforts toward gender equality and peacebuilding in Myanmar.

The ethnic Kachin activist said she is interested in taking the program’s courses on constitutions, political economy, women leadership, political systems, taxation and national revenue management.

Before she left Yangon for her studies on June 15, she sat down with The Irrawaddy to talk about why she chose the MPA and what knowledge she expects to implement in Myanmar on her return.

Why did you decide to study the MPA?

I have advocated for gender equality and women participation for five years, and throughout this time I have put in a lot of effort, kept talking about why we need gender equality, why women participation is important.

More people have started to acknowledge there is no gender equality in Myanmar and have begun accepting women’s participation. But in reality, we have not yet got the results or outcome we want, so we are surely missing something.

That is, we need to know how to integrate gender equality and women’s rights into the administrative system. For that, we need to know how the overall public administrative system is running, which is why I am going to learn where and how we need to change and improve the administration so women can participate more, and we can ensure women’s rights and gender equality.

What do you expect to contribute after returning from the MPA?

I will come back to the GEN. As we want gender integration from the national level to all levels, we are doing national-level advocacy a lot, but no satisfying change has been seen. I expect to push more than we are now for the implementation of that. I will be able participate more practically in peace and politics because there is always the question of how much a woman knows. If I come back from Harvard, there wouldn’t be any question on how much I know.

Women activists have been pushing for women’s participation in leadership. We now have a woman leading the country, despite the low number of women in the administration. What kind of difference have you seen so far?

We can’t say all the faults and shortages are because of her leadership, because absolute power is not in her hands—everybody knows. We can’t say the country is led completely under a woman. The military still largely holds power and there is a state in which they might order a coup at anytime. To see real change, the sovereignty of the country needs to be with the civilian government, elected by the people. If not, it will be difficult to achieve real change.

Your family and friends believe you are trying to achieve the impossible in your lifetime—gender equality. Do you think we will achieve gender equality in Myanmar?

Realistically, we can get at least 30 percent of women participation in every sector. We are pushing to get the policies to ensure that. At least, even if we don’t get equality, I think I can do that in my lifetime.

In what way do you want to encourage other women?

I can go and study, as my children are becoming adults and my husband supports me, but there might be many women who can’t go study because their family doesn’t support them or for other reasons.

So I discussed with a senior who finished the MPA program to create a platform on Facebook on which I could stream live videos of some of the lectures, upload parts of the lectures and discussions, and also reflect on the lectures and discussions for people who are interested, like an online class. I would like to share what I learn there through that [Facebook] group but I need to negotiate with the professors.