Some 300 Burmese and international women’s activists gathered in Rangoon this week to discuss the role of women in peace-building and the ongoing reform process in Burma.
The National Women’s Dialogue was organized by two Burma women’s groups—the Women’s Organizations Network and the Gender Equality Network—and the Civil Society Forum for Peace from Nov. 9-14. The dialogue was supported by the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
“Our theme is to raise our voices for women’s participation in Burma’s peace-building, security and development,” said May Sabae Phyu, the coordinator of the Gender Equality Network.
“We found that many of our people are not yet fully aware of why women’s participation in peace-building is important. And especially the male leaders, they do not accept it [women’s role in the peace process] yet,” said May Sabae Phyu, a Kachin peace activist and women’s rights advocate.
Joined by Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist and 2011 Nobel laureate, and women activists from Nepal, Sri Lanka and the United States, dialogue attendees discussed a range of topics, from women’s role in Burma’s politics and national reconciliation process, to their contributions to economic development.
Cheery Zahau, an ethnic Chin human rights activist who served on one of the panels at the dialogue, said the discussion also focused on how to better protect women in conflict zones and those at risk of domestic abuse.
“In addition to women’s issues, I discussed Burma armed groups’ violations of the Geneva Convention—violations of the rights of combatants and civilians, because there is a lack of practice in following the code of conduct during battle,” she added.
Burma ratified the Geneva Convention in 1992.
The organizers also invited female leaders from outside Burma to share their experiences working for peace within their own countries.
The dialogue opened with the screening of an award-winning documentary, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” with more than 700 people attending the first day of the forum.
“Pray the Devil Back to Hell” features Liberia’s Gbowee, and chronicles the efforts of a small band of women who worked to end more than a decade of civil war in the African nation.
“Because women played a very important role in ending 14 years of civil war in Liberia, we want to share that our Burmese women are also capable of being involved in peace building,” May Sabae Phyu said.
May Sabae Phyu said women in male-dominated Burmese society were being excluded from the peace process, referring to the current ceasefire talks between leaders of government, the affiliated Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) and dozens of ethnic armed groups.
“Both sides of the armed groups’ leaders and the government officials said we cannot be in the room for the peace talks as their talks involve military affairs that are not a matter for women,” she said. “They say we can contribute our inputs when the political dialogue begins.”
The activists said such limitations, which extended to the economic sphere, and violence against women were the main obstacles that they faced in achieving economic security. They suggested empowering women through vocational training in order to help reduce violence against women in conflict-affected areas.