After ceasefire, Karen women marginalised
Women are finding themselves squeezed out of village leadership roles they had been chosen for when men were involved in civil conflict, according to a new report by the Karen Human Rights Group.
WOMEN are losing positions of community leadership as ceasefire agreements see men return home from fighting, a new report by the Karen Human Rights Group has found.
The report, “Hidden Strengths, Hidden Struggles: Women’s testimonies from southeast Myanmar”, said that women in Karen areas of southeast Myanmar experienced a number of changes in their lives since the 2012 ceasefire between the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Myanmar government (see related story page 19).
One of the key findings was that women who had taken on positions of leadership in their wards and villages while men were away involved in civil conflict were now being squeezed out of those roles.
“In our report there are eight key issues we focus on, but [one of the most significant] findings was that in the past women had to take leading roles, but after the ceasefire that leading role was handed back to men. Women expressed the feeling that after the ceasefire they were no longer being given a role,” said Eh Taw, a spokesperson for KHRC.
The report cites a 20-year-old woman from Kyaikto township, in Thaton District.
“In the past, if the people called a meeting, most of the villagers who participated in the meeting were female, therefore, they selected a woman as the village head in the conflict period. They selected a village head who could speak Myanmar [language] and had self-confidence to speak with the Tatmadaw.”
She added, “After the peace process, females and males are participating in the meetings, so when they select the village head most of them are male … [The men] did not attend the meetings [in the past] because of the conflict period.”
As well as the gender imbalance in villages during the conflict period, reasons given for the high numbers of female village heads included the fact that villagers believed members of the Tatmadaw would be less likely to beat a woman.
Respondents told researchers that while some women had concerns about taking on the role of village head, particularly when it required dealing with members of the military or armed groups at night, others believed it had brought them status.
A resident of Thaton District in northern Mon State described such a scenario. “One village secretary, we called her mo gyi [aunt], she opened her heart to me when I visited her village and she said that, ‘Now the [2012 preliminary] ceasefire has been signed ... no one [armed actor or authority] comes and cares about us. In the past, when the Tatmadaw came, they called me a mo [mother] and gave me food, such as milk, as they asked me to take responsibility for their demands. And when the KNU came, they too offered me a bag of rice, saying that [I spoke for them]. Now however, when people [armed actors or authorities] come to see a mo, they do not care about me any more, and they just ignore me.’”
The report also found that because of the continued presence of armed men in their area, women remain fearful, including over the threat of sexual violence. Landmines were also identified as a further danger lingering after the conflict, one that continues to restrict women’s access to land and services, as well as posing a direct threat of death or injury.
Other changes reported following the ceasefire involved increased land grabbing – particularly in relation to road constructions as moves toward development were accompanied by demand for infrastructure.
In their conclusion, the report authors made a number of recommendations, many of which relate to the implementation of The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, to which Myanmar is party.
The recommendations include providing training and building the awareness of local administration offices at township and ward/village tract levels on issues of gender inequality and rural women’s rights, including on the right of women and men to jointly register their land.
It also calls for more work to be done to achieve equal representation of women in leadership positions, from village to Union level – including women from different ethnic minority backgrounds and women who have returned after being displaced.