“Honesty is one kind of courage” said activist May Sabe Phyu, just prior to being awarded a 2015 International Women of Courage Award by US Secretary of State John Kerry.
Co-founder of the Kachin Peace Network and director of the Gender Equality Network, which she also founded, May Sabe Phyu is known across Burma and beyond as a voice of peace and equity.
Her pacifist efforts captured public attention in recent years, as she helped to lead a global campaign to end conflict in Kachin State, northern Burma, where fighting between ethnic rebels and the Burma Army has raged since mid-2011.
She made headlines in 2012 when she and 12 other activists were charged for unlawful assembly after leading march to Rangoon marking International Peace Day, calling for an end to Burma’s civil war in Kachin State and elsewhere.
May Sabe Phyu told The Irrawaddy that she is proud to be a recipient of prestigious award.
“It is a moment of recognition for us,” she said, adding that such an acknowledgement gives her the strength to move on with her work, which is currently focused on ending all forms of violence against women and achieving gender equality.
“This award will create a platform for more advocacy on campaigns for peace and women’s empowerment, violence against women and women’s rights,” she said.
Speaking to The Irrawaddy by phone, she said that she was “thankful and proud to be recognized” as a courageous person for her work with ethnic Kachin people, women across Burma and other citizens. She will receive the award on Thursday, March 5, in Washington, DC.
“I hope this will give me strength as a mouthpiece, so we can raise our voices about violence and human rights abuse—including the rape case of two Kachin schoolteachers,” she said, referring to an incident in northern Shan State during which two ethnic Kachin volunteers were brutally murdered and possibly raped in their bedroom on the evening of Jan. 19.
Despite facing criticism and personal attacks for her work on gender equality, May Sabe Phyu, a 38-year-old mother of three, keeps her voice raised about the issue. She is currently working with other activists and government ministers to establish a landmark Prevention of Violence Against Women Law, which is expected to reach Parliament later this year.
“On the one hand, it may look like our society has gained some awareness and accepted equality for women,” she said, “but in reality, that’s not true.” In particular, she said, a legislative package known as the Race and Religion Protection bills, advocated for by the Buddhist nationalist group Ma Ba Tha, reveal serious shortcomings in attitudes about women’s decision-making abilities and right to control their own bodies and family life.
The prestigious award was established in 2007 and is awarded annually to women who have shown extraordinary courage in promoting women’s rights and empowerment, particularly under circumstances of great personal risk. It is the State department’s only award that pays tribute solely to emerging women leaders around the world.
Zin Mar Aung, co-founder of the Yangon School of Political Science and the Rainfall Gender Study Group, received the award in 2012.