In Crusading for Peace and Empowering Women, Kachin Activist Finds a Calling

By San Yamin Aung 11 December 2013

She devotes herself to peace-building and women’s empowerment, but her children tell her they wish she would settle into a more traditional matriarchal mold.

“My children ask me, ‘Mom, why can’t you be like other mothers?’” May Sabe Phyu tells The Irrawaddy.

Splitting her time among three civil society organizations—the Kachin Peace Network, Kachin Women’s Peace Network and Gender Equality Network—home life for the 37-year-old mother of three sometimes gets short shrift.

Faced with their displeasure at her busy schedule, she has tried to explain to her children what keeps her away from the kitchen and out on the streets.

“I told them this is not the time to sit and wait for someone else to help the country. This is the time to try for ourselves,” she said, adding that her family ultimately supports her efforts.

As she works to affect change in Burma, the ethnic Kachin activist credits her children with inspiring her, and her husband for picking up the child-rearing slack.

“It is certain that without their help, I could not do my job.”

That job, as she sees it, is to fight against injustice and inequality in Burma. As a woman, she says she has first-hand experience when it comes to gender discrimination in the country.

“As one personal experience, my husband and I applied to the same organization. My husband got the job but I didn’t get because we had an eight-month-old daughter at that timem,” she said. “They rejected me, assuming that as a mother who had a young child, I couldn’t fulfill duties as a childless person could. Even if men have young children, it is not a problem for them.”

Interested in learning more about the issue, May Sabe Phyu earned a master’s degree in gender and development studies from the Asian Institute of Technology in Thailand. After returning to Burma in May 2011, she began working for the Gender Equality Network (GEN), a coalition of more than 90 organizations in Burma including UN agencies, international NGOs and local civil society groups that collaborate to advocate for women’s rights.

Among other efforts to promote gender equality, one focus is on the political arena.

“We can measure whether women get equal rights or not in many ways. One significant way is whether women participate in politics and governance,” May Sabe Phyu said.

“If we look at women’s participation in Parliament, only 53 women sit among over 1,100 representatives,” she said, adding that less than 3 percent of management positions were held by women in eight districts and divisions surveyed for a report by women’s rights groups in Burma.

“My family told me that gender equality is impossible in my lifetime, and some say that I am trying to do impossible things.”

But recognizing that feats now taken for granted—human flight, among them—were also once thought impossible, May Sabe Phyu aspires to serve as something of a Wright brothers equivalent for women’s equality in Burma.

The country’s first-ever women’s forum was held on Dec. 6-7 in Rangoon, bringing together hundreds of leading women from government, business and civil society to discuss the role of women in Burma today.

“In the past, the government had no interest in women’s issues and they did not accept that gender discrimination was a problem. But now they are more interested in women’s issues and they are collaborating with us more than before 2010.”

May Sabe Phyu did not begin her social work in 2010, when the country began to transition away from a military—and male-dominated—regime to today’s nominally civilian government. She worked as a public health educator for the international NGO Doctors Without Borders from the age of 22.

She worked for Doctors without Borders, also known by its French acronym MSF, for about eight years, six of which were spent in Kachin State educating locals on the dangers of malaria, AIDS and tuberculosis. That work eventually led her back to Rangoon, where she would later spend a three-year stint working for the UN Development Program (UNDP).

The cofounder of the Kachin Peace Network took up the pacifist cause in 2012, after images from the conflict in Burma’s northernmost state reached her computer screen.

“I cried because those faces were not strange to me; my ethnic brethren were being victimized and were faced with poverty in Kachin State, where I stayed for six years. I want them to get their normal lives back, and one reason that they have become victims is the war,” she said.

Women and children are often victims in wars that they play no active part in, and conditions in refugee camps can be destabilizing to social order.

“Women were staying without places to change clothes, bathe and sleep. Without income, there is also increasing violence within families in refugee camps.”

Asked about ongoing peace negotiations between the government and ethnic armed groups in Burma, the Kachin peace activist said it was important to put all the issues on the table.

“Peace is neither a contract nor a meeting, in my opinion,” she said. “Until the demands of the ethnic armed groups are addressed, there will be no peace.”

May Sabe Phyu, who serves as coordinator for the Kachin Peace Network, was recently fined for organizing an unauthorized demonstration on International Peace Day last year in Rangoon. She still faces similar charges, under the country’s Peaceful Assembly Law, brought by other townships for the protest, in which participants demanded an end to the ongoing conflicts in Kachin State and other ethnic regions.

“It is fully unfair,” May Sabe Phyu said of the law, which has been used to jail dozens of peaceful protestors since it was enacted in 2011.

For May Sabe Phyu, the issues of women’s rights and Burma’s peace process are intimately intertwined.

“A nation is a combination of families and we, women, are managing all the daily affairs of our families, so the affairs of our country are directly associated with us, and women’s participation in politics and the peace process is important,” she said.

“Both sides, the government officials and armed groups’ leaders, still believe that women’s participation in peace-building is unnecessary,” she said, adding that this must change.

“I honestly believe that we, women, can create incredible changes in the nation since we have different views and feelings,” she said, describing the campaign of women in Liberia—credited with bringing an end to more than a decade of civil war in that country—as a powerful motivator behind her peace activism.

Kachin Peace Network member Khon Ja praised her colleague for the balance she struck between being a supportive mother and wife while fighting for change in Burma.

“She can communicate well with all people, from street vendors to government ministers,” Khon Ja said.

May Sabe Phyu is currently working with a coalition of women’s rights groups to draft a law addressing the issue of violence against women.

Despite her time away from home, May Sabe Phyu’s daughters look likely to follow in their activist mother’s footsteps in pushing societal and political boundaries.

“My two daughters told me they want to become the UN secretary general because there has never been a woman secretary,” she said.