Women in the Movement
covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, June 25, 2019


Women in the Movement



A handful of prominent female activists have made a significant mark on Burmese dissident politics, but true equality of the sexes remains elusive

A pro-democracy Burmese activist in exile holds a poster of Burma’s democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a protest march in New Delhi, India, on June 19, Suu Kyi’s 63rd birthday. (Photo: AFP)
THREE days after Cyclone Nargis struck southwestern Burma on May 2-3, social activist Phyu Phyu Thin bravely came out of hiding to help victims of the storm.

“I knew that our patients were suffering desperately after the cyclone, so I wanted to be here for them and try my best to help,” said Phyu Phyu Thin, an HIV/AIDS activist and youth leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD).

“They are poor, and now the storm has destroyed their lives. They’ve lost family, and they have no food or place to stay,” said the well-known activist, who went into hiding last August after taking part in protests against the Burmese junta.

Phyu Phyu Thin belongs to a new generation of female activists who are able to compete with their male counterparts in organizations that strive to promote democracy in Burma. She is also part of a proud tradition of women who have made their mark on Burmese politics.

Women like Mya Sein, who was selected as a representative of Asian women at the League of Nations in 1931; colonial-era senators Hnin Ma and Dr Saw Hsa; and post-independence minister for Karen State, Ba Maung Chain, paved the way for women in Burmese politics.

But the strides made by these early advocates of a more prominent role for women on the national political stage were soon erased when Ne Win imposed military rule on Burma in 1962. After this, women who wanted more than a token role in politics had to join dissident groups. 

Despite the progress made by women like Phyu Phyu Thin, however, many people say that there is still a significant lack of gender equality at the highest levels of the Burmese pro-democracy movement.

As the leader of an NLD-affiliated social welfare group working with HIV/AIDS patients, Phyu Phyu Thin insists that gender is not an important factor in her organization: “Men and women can work together regardless of gender,” she said in a recent interview with The Irrawaddy.

Other women also say that activists’ strong sense of sharing a common cause makes differences between men and women seem irrelevant.

“We didn’t think a lot about gender,” said a former political prisoner and student activist who took part in protests in 1988 and 1996, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Change in Burma is the responsibility of every citizen.”

Despite the views of these women, however, others say that Burmese women who strive to become key decision-makers still face numerous hurdles—a fact that can be easily forgotten because of the existence of a small number of high-profile leaders such as Phyu Phyu Thin and Aung San Suu Kyi.

A cursory look at the makeup of key political organizations in the democracy movement reveals that women make up less than 1 percent of the leadership.

This fact can be largely attributed to cultural factors, such as the traditional view that a woman’s place is in the home, a failure to appreciate the need to educate girls and a belief that men possess “hpoun,” a power derived from meritorious actions in past lives.

Meanwhile, in ethnic minority political organizations, the close association with armed groups has resulted in a militaristic culture that many regard as inherently male-centered.

But according to Khaing Mar Kyaw Zaw, a member of the Central Executive Committee of the Karen National Union (KNU) and a leading figure in the Karen Women’s Organization, the most important factor limiting women is their lack of education.

“Women don’t participate in the economic, social and political arena because they haven’t had a chance to study. When they are growing up, many girls have to stay home to help take care of their families, so they don’t go to school. This means that women have limited knowledge compared to men,” she said.

She went on to explain that traditionally, men are considered to be the leaders of the family and the country. The idea that women should focus on caring for their husbands and children prevents them from aspiring to a more active life outside the home.

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