Khin Zar Mon grew up in a conservative family in a remote rural town in Northern Shan state in Myanmar. Her father wouldn’t allow her or her sister to go outside alone and didn’t see the point in educating her beyond basic schooling.
Today, she manages an NGO, the Nat Pha Yar Ma Institute, that gives young women from across Myanmar training in leadership development and peace-building.
Khin Zar Mon was aware of the sexism she faced from an early age. “I was always questioning my father, asking him why I can’t go out and do the same things my two brothers can do,” she recalls. “My father would say I was trying to revolt against him. As a girl, in our family, you were expected to be quiet and demure.”
It was her mother who encouraged her to continue her education, battling her father to ensure she could go to school. When she was 22, she applied for and won a scholarship to attend university. Her experience, she says, opened her eyes to the “real world.”
“Patriarchy is everywhere in Myanmar. Women are treated like second-class citizens. It’s not about religion. As women, we’re always controlled – our mobility, our sexuality, our sexual rights. Most men, they just expect their women to stay at home and be a wife.”
Women Left Out of Peace Talks
Despite having a woman as de-facto head of state since the landslide election victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in 2015, women in Myanmar are still largely excluded from positions of power in their communities and political institutions. A growing women’s movement has called for more action to tackle the institutional, political and cultural barriers that, they say, block women from fully participating as leaders in their society.
The ongoing peace process between the Burmese government and the 21 ethnic armed groups that opposed it during decades of civil war is proving to be a new battleground for women’s rights activists. The process has been criticized by groups like Human Rights Watch, the United States Institute of Peace and the United Nations for the lack of women delegates and members of decision-making bodies, on the side of the government as well as with the ethnic armed groups.
At the same time, the new civilian-led government has taken steps to bring more women into the process. At the first Union Peace Conference, held in January 2016 and attended by representatives from the government, the military, ethnic armed groups and political parties, delegates agreed to a 30 percent quota for women in the peace talks.
The Alliance for Gender Inclusion in the Peace Process (AGIPP) has found the number of women participants has risen slowly since then, from 7 percent to 17 percent at the latest conference, held in February this year. However, they say that without a way to hold the government accountable for implementing the quota, it will be difficult to reach.
Those working on women’s inclusion have also highlighted that it’s not just a numbers game – increasing the number of women at the negotiating table doesn’t necessarily increase their influence. Jana Naujoks, gender adviser at International Alert, believes that you have to look at the quality of women’s participation to really understand whether they have an influence.
“Having women in the room is a start and that’s why quotas can be a positive step, but ensuring that the issues women raise are considered in problems and solutions is the next step,” she says.
“Some of it is about changing norms and expectations at the personal level; some of it is changing the way institutions operate; some of it is very practical and relates to logistics, making it easier for women to participate.”
Subtle Sexism at the Negotiating Table
The current chair of AGIPP, Mi Kun Chan Non, attended the August 2016 Union Peace Conference as an observer. She saw at first hand the subtle sexism that, she believes, limited women’s ability to make a meaningful contribution.
“Lots of women are still left out of the discussion, especially in those centered on politics and the security sector,” she said.
“The majority of people in decision-making positions are men, so they meet often and share information with each other but it’s never shared with the women. The women didn’t know when things were being discussed, so they didn’t have enough time to prepare.”
Mi Kun Chan Non says stereotypes about the role of women in Burmese society are the root of the problem, and that women need to push back.
“The traditional perception is that women shouldn’t be involved in decision-making in their communities and that they should be in the home,” she said. “We believe we need to empower women leaders to have the confidence to participate in decision-making.”
Khin Zar Mon wants to empower young women across Myanmar to create a new generation of female leaders. Since her NGO’s foundation in 2014, 40 women have attended the Nat Pha Yar Ma Institute’s 16-day program, where they’re trained in peace-building, leadership, sexual rights and gender awareness. Giving them the confidence to assert their rights has been a crucial part of the learning process, says Khin Zar Mon, which, she believes, will have ripple effects.
“If you educate one woman, you educate a nation,” she said. “In my experience, when a woman learns something new, she’ll share it with her community and change her community with her knowledge.”