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The resilience of ethnic women in Myanmar

Guest contributor

By Shalini Perumal

Three years have gone by since the Myanmar military’s illegal 2021 coup which reversed 11 years of progress since the transition to democracy began in 2010. 

Following the coup, the population swiftly mobilized, flooding the streets in organized protests against the military. 

Millions passionately called for the return of power to the people. Remarkably, 60 percent of these protestors were women, boldly asserting their presence in the unfolding revolution. 

Ethnic women have long been catalysts for progressive change in Myanmar, a legacy that endures to this day. Their ability to act decisively and fearlessly stems from the deep bonds and trust nurtured within communities. 

Despite facing discrimination and entrenched misogyny that hampers their engagement in public and political spheres, ethnic women persist in pushing boundaries through their active participation in the resistance movement.

Myanmar’s Spring Revolution stands as a powerful symbol of collective resilience, with ethnic women at its forefront, shaping the trajectory of the pro-democracy movement. 

Established in 1999, the Women’s League of Burma (WLB) – serving as an umbrella organization uniting 13 women’s groups dedicated to advancing women’s rights towards a peaceful and equitable society – highlights the deliberate targeting of women human rights defenders by the military, who face a myriad of human rights violations for simply advocating for the recognition and respect for fundamental rights. 

Their plight reflects the broader challenges encountered by all human rights defenders in Myanmar. According to a report by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, the Spring Revolution has witnessed the remarkable courage and steadfast leadership of women from diverse backgrounds, challenging the foundations of military rule.

A historical moment unfolded during the 2021 anti-coup protests when, for the first time in Myanmar’s history, women proudly raised their htamein (sarongs) as flags, declaring, “Our htamein! Our Flag! Our Victory!” 

This symbolic gesture reverberated through the nation and garnered global attention, recognizing the bravery and resolve of Myanmar women who have been at the forefront of the resistance, enduring imprisonment, torture and sexual violence at the hands of the military.

Despite facing such atrocities, Myanmar women remain resolute in their determination to overthrow the military, emancipate the populace, and establish a full democratic society. They persist in risking their lives and futures on the frontlines, driven by an unyielding commitment to their cause.

During the Spring Revolution, ethnic women have embraced a variety of roles, showcasing their dedication to safeguarding freedom. While some have chosen to wield arms, bravely standing on the frontlines of conflict, others play crucial roles in supporting opposition movements by providing essential indispensable resources such as food, finances, and essential materials. 

Women revolutionaries utilize diverse mediums, including poetry and art, to effectively convey truths to those in positions of authority. As Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement continues to endure, the involvement of ethnic women remains indispensable to its success. 

The ongoing resistance stands as a symbol of the enduring influence of women’s voices in shaping a nation’s destiny. The remarkable resilience of women-led civil society organizations in the face of incredibly challenging circumstances exemplifies their courage. 

Despite facing significant risks, these groups and their leaders persist in delivering vital humanitarian aid and relief to displaced populations. Their efforts extend support to the urgent needs of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), with a particular focus on pregnant women, the elderly, and children. 

Moreover, women’s groups actively engage in on-the-ground advocacy, amplifying the voices that call for an end to the brutal assaults faced by their communities. The activities of women-led civil society ethnic organizations have left a powerful impact on Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement. 

Their voices, intertwined with the broader chorus of dissent, have enriched the discourse, shedding light on the unique challenges confronting various communities. In the face of the military’s attempts to suppress dissent, their resilience serves as a powerful force reaffirming the democratic aspirations of Myanmar’s people. 

Amidst the turmoil ignited by the illegal 2021 military coup, women-led ethnic, civil society organizations have sparked hope, fostering unity, resilience, and a demand for justice. 

For example, notable contributions have been made by organizations such as Karen Women’s Organization (KWO), Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN) Mae Tao Clinic,  Rohingya Women Development Network (RWDN), Mon Women’s Organization (MWO) and Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT).

As the Spring Revolution and pro-democracy movement persists, ethnic women’s voices remain steadfast, shaping the narrative of Myanmar’s struggle for democracy. Their unyielding commitment, resilience, and collaborative spirit offer a glimpse of hope for a future where diversity is celebrated, and the rights of all citizens are upheld. 

People all over the world watch in solidarity as these resilient women continue to stand on the front lines, defying oppression and working towards a democratic Myanmar filled with promise and possibility. 

Shalini Perumal is a creative international development professional who has worked previously in Mae Sot, Thailand at Mae Tao Clinic. She is currently a freelance journalist as well as Communications Officer at ActionAid India in New Delhi. The views expressed in the article are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the organisation. 

DVB publishes a diversity of opinions that does not reflect DVB editorial policy. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our stories: [email protected]


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