A pledge for more women in leadership roles and in the ongoing peace process has been demanded by the Karen Women’s Organisation.
The call coincided with International Women’s Day on 8 March, a day to celebrate women’s achievements and shine a spotlight on gender inequalities that span from violence against women to a lack of women in leadership roles.
The women’s group stressed the need to establish an agreement to include at least 30 percent women in the Karen National Union’s (KNU) leadership and peace talk delegations.
“We have just one individual; a deputy-chair in the KNU’s Executive Committee who is a woman and also one woman each in the organising wing and the medical department – there aren’t many,” said Naw Dah Dah, from the Karen Women’s Organisation (KWO).
About 3,500 Karen women and supporters marched at eight different locations in Karen State extending from eastern Burma’s Taungoo Township, to refugee camps along the Burma-Thailand border.
At the celebrations more than 50 Karen women leaders were recognised for dedicating their lives to the fight for women’s rights. These included women who have played a role in politics such as Blooming Night Zan, who has lead a committee in the management of Karen refugee camps on the Thai border, as well as current political prisoners such as Naw Ohn Hla, who remains incarcerated following her participation in 2014 protest.
The momentum from the day’s celebrations was used to renew the call for more leadership roles for women at all levels of politics. However the last attempt to increase more Karen female leadership roles fell on deaf ears. The 30 percent principle adopted by the KNU fell short and resulted in a mere three percent. A spokesperson for the KNU said the resistance to change was due to the belief that a woman is better suited to other industries rather than politics.
“I think there is only a small amount of women in the political leadership due to a common point of view that women suit better with civil society work and so they are more encouraged to take up roles in the social, education and health sectors,” said Zipporah Sein, deputy-chair of the KNU.
The KWO also urged the Burmese government and other ethnic armed groups to join the conversation.
It would seem that Aung San Suu Kyi has broken the glass ceiling for women in politics, yet only sixteen percent of seats in the new parliament are held by females.
Women and gender rights organisations have rapidly been evolving in Burma since the end of military rule in 2011 and are raising their voices in society to end discrimination against women.
Ma Htar Htar, founder of Akhaya Women, an organisation focused on challenging the gender status quo has also advocated recently in Burma that there needs to be a push for an increase in female participation in the workforce. She says men also need to champion the call, not just women.
“Men must become active contributors if monumental change is to take place. Male participation is really important. Men [supporting gender equality] should talk to men [who don’t] because [those] men never listen to us women.”
Burma ranks 154th among 191 surveyed countries when it comes to representation in lower or single national parliaments, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union data. Human rights groups say there is still a long way to go.
The Karen women’s group also renewed their commitment to to speak out about abuses against women. In a KWO statement released to the media on 8 March they draw attention to their previous 2010 report “Walking Amongst Sharp Knives” which documented the rape, torture and intimidation of Karen women, witnessed or experienced by village chiefs since the 1980s.
Naw K’nyaw Paw, the KWO secretary, acknowledged the history of Karen women leaders and said the role of women in the peace process was crucial in ending violence in Karen State.
“We are saying together, now is our time. Our right to parity is long overdue,” she said.