Karen Women, Disability Advocates Recognized as ‘Women of Change’

By Nyein Nyein 23 March 2018

CHIANG MAI, Thailand – The U.S. Embassy in Yangon honored two Myanmar women and one local organization with its annual Women of Change Award on Thursday, recognizing the “incredible work” that they and so many women are doing to advance the rights of all people in the country.

The 2018 recipients were the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO); Daw Aye Thinzar Maung, an executive committee member of the Myanmar Federation for Persons with Disabilities; and Dr. Thet Thet Mu, the deputy director general for health information at the Ministry of Health and Sports. They were honored for their expertise in diverse fields including public health, women’s leadership, and the rights of indigenous people and people with disabilities.

US Ambassador Scot Marciel said in a press release that this year’s recipients “took risks to do things that were controversial, difficult or dangerous: they stood up for under-represented communities; and they solved problems creatively.”

The award recipients told The Irrawaddy that this recognition of civil society groups would help to make more people aware of their efforts and encourage others to stand up for change in Myanmar.

KWO representatives Naw Hser Hser (left) and Naw Wahkushee Tenner pose with the organization’s award. Photo: KWO (supplied)

Naw Wahkhushee Tenner, a member of the KWO’s standing committee, said, “This award gives us more strength and encourages us to continue supporting gender equality, indigenous people’s rights, women’s participation in the peace process and federal democracy in Burma. We will continue to stand against crimes committed by the Burma [Myanmar] Army and fight for the rights of everyone.”

An ethnic Karen women’s group formed in 1949, the KWO operates from a base on the Thailand-Myanmar border and is dedicated to empowering women. It pushed for increasing women’s role in decision-making within the Karen National Union (KNU), and has been a strong voice for gender equality and indigenous people’s rights.

The US Embassy statement reads, “We commend the KWO for their brave stance against the violence against all civilians in Rakhine State and throughout Myanmar. The KWO fights for the rights of all people, not just the Karen.” The embassy cited the KWO’s criticism of the Myanmar military’s persecution of minorities. In a statement released in September last year, three weeks after the Aug. 25 militant attacks in Maungdaw and Buthetaung townships, the KWO condemned “Burmese [Myanmar] military actions against Rohingya civilians.”

Naw Wahkushee Tenner told The Irrawaddy on Friday, “We would like to encourage women’s groups and CBOs/CSOs [community based organizations/civil society organizations] that are working on indigenous rights to continue fighting for women’s rights, indigenous people’s rights and equality, and to help to end abuse and impunity by the military and stand against atrocity, speak up for the oppressed and fight for the rights of everyone, regardless of their faith or background.”

Disability rights advocate Daw Aye Thinzar Maung was recognized for her role in raising public awareness about equal access to education and job opportunities for people with disabilities. According to the 2014 census, Myanmar has about 2.3 million disabled people, or 4.6 percent of the total population.

Daw Aye Thinzar Maung was born fully abled but was later diagnosed with a disease that caused her to lose her sight. She worked as a trainer with the Association of Myanmar Disabled Women’s Affairs (AMDWA) before becoming a leader in MFPD.

Women of Change Awardees are seen with US Ambassador to Myanmar Scot Marciel. (Photo: US Embassy in Myanmar.)

She did not expect to be recognized with such an award — the first of its kind ever given to a disabled person in Myanmar — saying, “I am glad to accept this recognition.”

“It is not only for me,” she told The Irrawaddy. “It gives me a chance to speak up for all other disabled persons, and it could bring further support for people with disabilities,” she said, adding,

“More public awareness is still needed in Myanmar in terms of education and job opportunities.”

The embassy said Dr. Thet Thet Mu was being honored for leading the “use of quality health data for evidence-based policy and decision making.” It cited the fact that in 2015-16 she led the first-ever demographic and health survey (DHS) to fully reflect Myanmar’s geographic and ethnic diversity.

The US Embassy first awarded the Myanmar Women of Change Award in 2017. There were six recipients last year: Mai Mai of the Kachin Youth Organization; Daw San San Maw of the Myanmar Red Cross; Naw Ei Ei Min of Promotion of Indigenous and Nature Together; Daw Hla Hla Ye from the Legal Clinic Myanmar; Dr. Khin Chit of the Ministry of Health and Sports; and Daw Yi Yi Cho of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation.