Karen people hold posters and shout slogans during a protest against the Myanmar Army for allegedly arbitrary killings, rapes and shelling and calling for the removal of army camps, at Hpapun in Karen state on July 28, 2020. Photo: AFP

To help mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on November 25, the US Campaign for Burma is honoring human-rights defenders during 16 days of activism to prevent violence against women.

In an effort to highlight this issue in the context of women in Myanmar, it should be noted that women are uniquely and disproportionately affected by conflict. Violence incited by the Myanmar Army has not only forced mass displacement, but increases the vulnerability of women to sexual violence, sexual assault, and rape as a weapon of war.

Sexual violence is commonly used as a tactic by the Myanmar Army to intimidate and scar women and girls – the Karen Women’s Organization reports that more than half of all reported rape cases are perpetrated by high-ranking military officers.

After the violent August 2017 campaign initiated by the army and targeted at Rohingya Muslims, Human Rights Watch reported women being raped, beaten, murdered, and set on fire in 19 villages in Rakhine state, all of which were committed by uniformed members of the army.  

Female refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) also face extreme rights abuses as people who do not fall under the protection or jurisdiction of one country. In refugee camps along the Thai-Myanmar border, little to no legal protection is offered to women who suffer from sexual and gender-based violence, making sexual exploitation common during border crossings.

High rates of domestic violence are present in IDP camps where men commonly take out their anger and frustration with their current living situation on the women residing in the camps. The trafficking of women and girls from northern Shan and Kachin states into China is also a common occurrence and results in rape and extreme stigma if survivors are ever returned to Myanmar.

The Karen Women’s Organization has reported on the status of 109 female village chiefs who led their respective villages through the years of conflict prior to the ceasefire between the Karen National Union and Myanmar Army in 2012. The village chiefs were subjected to abuse by the army, often being forced to serve as porters, human shields, and landmine testers.

A mere seven of the original 109 leaders chose to continue their position as village chief after the extreme prejudice and violence they faced while in power.

The general lack of women in decision-making positions is representative of Myanmar’s overall attitude toward the status and rights of women. Especially in recent years, women have made efforts to break the status quo but are often stifled by widespread discrimination and the army’s atrocities.

The rampant women’s rights abuses and general inequalities permeating Myanmar have not seen any improvement throughout the five years the National League of Democracy has been in power. In fact, it is likely that the status of women has only decreased given the army’s perpetration of genocide, an act defended by the NLD. Given the NLD’s landslide victory in this year’s elections, the future for women remains uncertain.

Despite the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, the elections featured mass disfranchisement of ethnic minorities who would have been the primary constituency for any female candidates for parliament, making for a government with very little ethnic-minority representation, much less women in positions of power.

Giving space for women as decision-makers in political, economic, and peace processes is vital to ensuring long-lasting peace and a society built on justice and equality. It has been proved that peace processes that include women are 35% more likely to last at least 15 years, making inclusion not only vital for improving the status of women but providing Myanmar sustainable peace.

While on-the-ground programs and community groups are influential for creating local and short-term change, improving the status of women necessitates governmental reform and long-term change. Allowing women the opportunity and pathways to assume positions of power will bring change at all levels and work for a more inclusive and socially aware way of governing.

It is also important to note that while increasing the number of female leaders is immensely important for the future of Myanmar, increasing the number of ethnic-minority women is also pertinent. Regardless of how many women are in power, it is the voices of ethnic-minority women that are in desperate need of prioritization in a country that has only ignored and suppressed the needs of its ethnic minorities.

As the NLD comes to power for another term and has already showcased its willingness to provide for Myanmar’s women, the urgency for ethnic-minority women in parliament and decision-making positions is more pressing now than ever.

To work toward a democratic and human-rights-based Myanmar, the international community and relevant non-profit and civil-society organizations should focus on uplifting and amplifying the voices and work of ethnic-minority women.

Without this investment, the notorious rights abuses that plague Myanmar will only continue the cycle of impunity for both military and government, leading a “democracy” with little regard for the country’s ethnic populations. Until then, everyone is responsible and must take part in stopping any kinds of gender-based violence against women

Myra Dahgaypaw

Myra Dahgaypaw is the senior partnership officer for international justice and accountability at the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, a Karen human rights advocate, a former internally displaced person and refugee from Karen state, eastern Myanmar