Human rights advocate Cheery Zahau was honored with the UN Development Program’s N-Peace Award for 2017 in the Untold Stories category. An ethnic Chin and secretary of the Chin Progressive Party, she has been a longtime advocate for human rights and gender equality and for women taking leadership roles in politics. Cheery spoke with The Irrawaddy’s Nyein Nyein about her experiences and perspectives on women’s rights and gender equality.
Why do you think you were honored with the N-Peace Award?
I was honored in the Untold Stories category. In 2016 I was contacted by the UNDP and they asked for my CV. There were about six or seven other women leaders as well as other nominees for [the category] Campaign for Action. There were about 10 people from Myanmar. I did not know that I was being awarded. I completely forgot about it. And in late 2017 my friends and colleagues shared with me the good news that they saw my profile and that I had won the award. When I checked, I was labeled as a reporter and it was corrected after I explained to them that I have never worked with any news agency. I am just a researcher and human rights activist. I have done research and documented it in about seven books. I can be referred to as an author, not a reporter.
How does the award help you with your current work?
This award acknowledged my previous contributions to the Women’s League of Chinland [WLC], because the WLC is an umbrella organization of Chin women’s groups. Now I am working at a political institution. Although it is not directly related to my current work, it is recognition for the research I have done on women in conflict areas. It shows that those who keep up their activism or movement for gender equality or social transformation won’t be forgotten. They will be acknowledged at some point. Whichever field we choose, journalism or activism, if their efforts bring changes to the community, other people will recognize them for what they’ve done.
As a mother and as an activist, how do you manage the work-life balance? What are the challenges?
There are many challenges. As a mother, it becomes harder to work in this field. People might think it would be easy for mothers to work in the fields of human rights, democracy and politics. It is totally different. I didn’t want to leave my child for work. I keep telling myself I must make it work even though I have a child because I worry about the perception that one can have a child but cannot work with a young baby.
How much legal or community support is there for working mothers?
On creating an environment that is convenient for working mothers, we do not have any push factors in Myanmar. In Myanmar, if you have a child, you leave your work until the child grows up. So after marriage we have to choose…. Either we have a baby and stay with them or we continue working. We do not have the space for women to work and take care of a baby at the same time. To achieve that we need much more campaigning and advocacy.
There are some who do both, taking care of a baby and working. But some cannot take a break, depending on the family and its economic status. For instance, I could not take a rest from work because I did not want to stop working. For people like me there is no support. Support is needed. So we are proving that there needs to be support, like childcare for working mothers. The companies, institutions and government departments that employ working mothers should understand these needs even if we don’t have formal legislation.
How much change have you seen in the mindset of those who cannot accept the concept of women’s rights?
If we talk about women’s rights, of course there are misunderstandings. But what we are talking about is gender equality. Gender equality is not about only women, who would take all the advantages from men. It is about encouraging women to be on equal terms with men, to have the same job status. It is the same for men; if they are being left out, the men must get equal terms.
Generally speaking, people understand the concept, because if we have gender equality it helps create a happy family life and spreads happiness all around. In terms of the economy, the state could also benefit from having both men and women working. One good thing about gender equality is that both women and men can earn an income because they can both have jobs. It helps the economic development of the family because having both the husband and wife working obviously helps the family, as well as the state.
As an ethnic Chin, what is your take on government and civil society support for indigenous women? What are the needs?
In the Chin community, we have small Chin women’s groups and they are providing community awareness training all the time. When we include gender equality topics at those trainings, we see less resistance [from the male participants]. People become more aware of the importance of having equality, and that is a good sign.
As for economic status and community development, our Chin State sill needs a lot more infrastructure including roads, schools, hospitals and access to water and electricity. Unless we have these basic infrastructure needs fulfilled, it will remain hard to provide women with jobs and economic development. People live by farming and they survive on the crops they harvest from the farms. It is not an economy yet. For that to change, the government has more work to do to fulfill basic needs. So we have been pushing more for that.