YANGON — Stakeholders and activists welcomed a slight increase in women involved in Myanmar’s peace process but cautioned there were challenges to meet the target of 30 percent female participation.
Women’s rights groups have been advocating for a minimum 30 percent female representatives of nationwide peace negotiations launched in 2011.
On Oct. 15, 2015, eight of Myanmar’s 21 ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) signed landmark peace accord the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) which stated: “We shall include a reasonable number of women representatives in the political dialogue process.”
The country’s framework for political dialogue later added an official commitment to “make efforts to achieve 30 percent female participation in all political dialogues.”
Women were largely excluded from Union-level peace conferences held in January and August last year and May this year, however.
Only seven percent of the 700 attendees of the January 2016 Union Peace Conference were women.
The number slightly improved to 13 percent of 663 attendees in the August conference last year and 17 percent of 910 attendees in May this year.
Myanmar’s failure to reach the 30 percent target was discussed at an international seminar on the roles of women in Myanmar’s peace process held by Ar Yone Oo’s Social Development Association and the Peace Research Institute Oslo in Yangon on Monday.
Naw Susana Hla Hla Soe, a prominent women’s rights activist who is now an Upper House lawmaker, said representation of more than half of Myanmar’s population in the peace process was very low, particularly at national-level peace dialogues and among decision-making bodies.
She said she was only ever permitted involvement in social affairs discussions at political dialogues in Karen State, despite wanting to join political discussions.
“There is an idea that women are only concerned with social affairs,” she said, adding it is important to include women’s voices in the planning and implementation of all parts of the peace process.
Daw Thandar Oo, founder of Women and Peace Action Network of Shan State (WPAN), echoed Naw Susuan Hla Hla Soe’s comments and said female participation in political and security affairs was lacking.
“Excluding women’s voices is to ignore the majority of voices,” she said, adding that without including or taking consideration of women’s experiences and opinions in all sectors, it will be impossible to implement peace.
Zaceu Lian, liaison officer of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, said when each group select delegates for their quota to attend the peace talks, they experienced difficulties finding representatives as they chose experts on the issue who can debate well with the military.
“[Peace negotiations] are not a place to train [women], but a place to debate with the military and other groups. When they see a woman they think they are not ready, which is why no women were included in discussions on security,” he said.
Chin Chin, a technical adviser to the Chin National Front, argued that the 23 political parties with parliamentary seats are only allowed to send about five people each to peace talks and therefore usually choose party’s chairman or secretary general.
“In this case, we need to reconsider the structure of political parties which are dominated by men at the top levels,” said Chin Chin.
Daw Thandar Oo of WPAN, who attended the three previous Union peace conferences said: “There has always been a question of how much women know and how skillful they are in being involved in peace dialogues.”
“Where does skill come from,” she asked. “It comes from our experience, that’s why we need to open more spaces for women.”
Hkun Okker, a leading patron of the Pa-Oh National Liberation Organization (PNLO), said: “We have agreed to include at least 30 percent. The groups which attend peace conferences need to try to meet that in choosing representatives. They have a responsibility for that,” adding that he hopes the number will be met in the upcoming peace conference which is expected to be held in December.
State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who is chairperson of Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee, has also called greater female participation in the country’s peace process.
“There are ongoing movements calling for 30 percent participation in the peace process. I want more than that; I want 50 percent,” she said at an International Women’s Day celebration in Naypyitaw in March, adding that participation did not just mean sitting in on the conference.