Step by Step: Promoting Women’s Rights in Myanmar

Publication Date: 
20 Dec 2012

The peace process now unfolding in Myanmar after decades of ethnic insurgency has opened the space for civil society advocates to join the national discourse. Women and women’s organizations have an unprecedented opportunity to highlight their priorities and suggest ways to achieve greater equality. Terry Ann Rogers, a senior women’s rights advocacy specialist who has worked on IFES programs around the world and who recently led workshops in Myanmar, provides some insight into the process.

Please tell us about the Global Women’s Leadership Fund.

The Global Women’s Leadership Fund is a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) program that is currently funding IFES’ work in Myanmar. The program focuses on the inclusion of women in peace and reconciliation processes for post-conflict countries currently undergoing transitions towards more democratic governance. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced this program as one of the first implementing tools of the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security released in December 2011.

Under this program, IFES is focusing on three countries: Cóte d’Ivoire, Libya and Myanmar, where I have been working. The objective of the program in Myanmar is to build the capacity of women’s groups and women who are grassroots leaders to help them feel confident and empowered to take part in the transitional processes and advocate for their specific priorities. In Myanmar, we have been able to develop and support a rapid-response series of activities with a local group in Rangoon (also called Yangon). We held a discussion on women’s political participation in elections in October. This month, I conducted a three-day workshop on leadership and negotiation skills and lobbying tactics, as well as a one-day policy dialogue with leaders of women’s NGOs on developing principles to govern women’s participation in peace negotiations.

What is the goal of the trainings we are implementing? Who will participate?

Both the workshop and the dialogue involved capacity building and advocacy. The dialogue also addressed the peace process and focused on women speaking with one voice. The group enunciated principles to guide women’s involvement in the peace process and as participants at the negotiation table. These activities were designed with Zin Mar Aung and the Yangon School of Political Science, which issued the invitations. I conducted the trainings.

Zin Mar Aung is an activist from Myanmar for women’s rights who received the International Women of Courage Award from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this year. What does having her on board mean for the project?

Zin Mar Aung has been involved from the beginning of IFES’ work in Myanmar. She participated in the design of the workshop and the policy dialogue. She was also instrumental in identification of and outreach to participants for both events. Zin Mar Aung is one of those people that you find in almost every country – although there are not very many of them – who know just about everybody, so she was critical to the project.

You have worked to empower women in many countries around the world. What has been most special about your experience in Myanmar?

Interestingly, women in Myanmar are just beginning to work toward their own empowerment. The democratization trend is new, and in fact, people are still quite distrustful of the government and not sure that this process will continue or what it will mean. Also, people I have talked to relay that they are still very afraid of expressing opinions and demonstrating. For example, many – particularly women –  are still very fearful of signing petitions.

Myanmar is different from so many other countries I have worked in, because things are just getting started there. Myanmar is opening up, as everybody knows, to tourism, business and development, and women are really at the beginning of organizing with regard to their own rights. The need is tremendous because women’s position is not good at all. Women are supposed to remain in the family and raise children and be housewives. Many of the college and university students that I spoke to as part of the trainings had trouble getting permission from their parents, particularly their fathers, to even go out at night to attend meetings. It is still a very patriarchal and conservative society with regard to women, and women’s organizations have a long way to go. But I have observed change gradually in almost every country I have worked in, and it will happen in Myanmar, too. The women are becoming very, very active in starting to organize to empower women and, as part of that, to involve women in the peace process.