In late 2020, Burma will hold a national election, the second since the country’s democratic opening in 1990. Since those historic nationwide elections in 2015, Burma has experienced an alarming regression—a faltering peace process, an intensification of armed conflict along several fronts, an increase in intimidation and detention of journalists and human rights defenders, and ongoing challenges for women’s rights advocates.
Throughout the country, men continue to dominate decision-making roles across sectors, particularly in public office, with nearly 90 percent of the National Assembly seats in parliament held by men. Questions of electability by political party leaders also persist and continue to act as a barrier for women interested in competing for an elected office. With men leading the legislative reform process in parliament, policy initiatives that focus on women’s rights and gender equality remain on the back burner of debate. At the community level, women tend to earn less pay than men for the same job, especially in the agriculture sector, which employs two-thirds of Burmese citizens and accounts for more than one-third of the country’s GDP. (Read more about NED’s work in Burma.)
In addition to political and economic barriers, conflict and rampant human rights violations present a widespread challenge to communities across the country. Ongoing armed clashes put the country’s ethnic minorities at an even greater risk, with women and girls often bearing the brunt of the harm. Sexual violence as a weapon by the Burmese military remains widely documented. The Burmese government also has failed to curtail human trafficking, bring perpetrators to justice, or give support to survivors.
As the country continues to struggle to realize its democratic aspirations, civil society remains at the forefront of the movement for human rights and accountability, including overturning harmful gender norms and stereotypes. With support from the National Endowment for Democracy, three such groups exemplify the role women are playing in this space, whether it be documenting rights violations, preparing women for leadership, or persistently championing democratic values in the next generation of activists working to bolster change in Burma.
Preparing women for political office
“The number of women elected officials matters for democracy consolidation because women bring perspective, attributes, and experiences on critical issues for developing country like Burma,” says Lway Aye Nang, founder and director of the Women’s Initiative Platform (WIP)—an organization that works with a diverse range of political parties to empower and mentor emerging women leaders to both seek and be ready for political office. WIP also convenes current female Members of Parliament around key women and ethnic minority rights issues. (Read more about the Women’s Initiative Platform.)
Lway Aye Nang, who is originally from Shan State but lived in exile in northern Thailand until 2013, feels optimistic about their progress: “We are very happy to see that there is a significant increase in the level of political party support for women politicians in Burma and a growing recognition by the leaders from political parties of the untapped capacity and talents of women and women’s leadership across the country.”
Empowering the next generation
Phyoe Phyoe Aung is widely recognized as one of the country’s leading youth activists, using her voice to champion rights to expression, education, and justice. “Promising young women leaders should embrace the challenges and pursue every opportunity to empower themselves,” she says. As a result of her activism, in 2008, she was arrested and sentenced to four years for her participation in the 2007 Saffron Revolution, a series of political and economic protests and demonstrations that captured the country and the international community’s attention. Phyoe Phyoe Aung is also the former General-Secretary of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) Central Working Committee, which has played a historically influential role in the struggle for democracy.
In 2015, she was arrested again—along with around 126 other students—for leading a reform campaign in 2014 against the new National Education Bill. Continuing her work from prison and following her release in 2016, Phyoe Phyoe Aung continues to fight for change in her role on the management committee of the Wings Capacity Building School, which builds knowledge of democratic practices and values among university students and youth. Phyoe Phyoe Aung also leads programming that seeks to mend divisions in an effort to build understanding and trust between emerging leaders from different ethnic and religious communities to work for a more tolerant and inclusive democracy.
Advocating for female minorities
As the co-founder and now advisor of Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN), Nang Lao Liang Won, aka Tay Tay, continues to advocate for gender equality and justice for ethnic Shan women. “We individual women and organizations have documented violations of women’s human rights by state-actors—in particular, sexual and gender-based violence—as evidence to hold those who committed them accountable,” says Tay Tay of her work. She also has served in various capacities for the Women’s League of Burma (WLB), where she is currently an advisory board member, as well as a long-time member of Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development and is currently acting as an advisor to both the Global Fund for Women and the Urgent Action Fund for Women.
In 2013, Tay Tay was a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, where she explored strategies for protecting women’s human rights and promoting women’s participation in Burma’s democratization process. Reflecting on the contributions of the many groups working in defense of women and minority rights in Burma, Tay Tay is confident that progress is being made: “We, women’s groups of Burma, have proved that diversity of different cultural, social, and political backgrounds has made us stronger.”
The National Endowment for Democracy is proud to support these organizations as they continue to demonstrate the critical role women play in advancing democracy in Burma.