In Burma, 'Women’s Issues' Can’t Wait

May 11, 2015
Woman street vendor smiles at her stall in Yangon, Burma

Women’s issues can wait -- there are more pressing issues at hand.

That’s the mentality I sometimes come across in my work as Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues -- and it could not be more wrong. 

Women are powerful partners for progress, especially when communities and countries are struggling with economic or security challenges. That’s the message I’ll take to Burma this week, when I’ll meet with people from across the country to discuss the critical role that women and girls have to play in shaping the country’s future.

Burma is a country facing a range of challenges, especially related to building a modern economy and establishing lasting peace within its borders. The government has been working to resolve long running ethnic and religious conflict and to eliminate restrictions on basic freedoms while raising the country’s standard of living. At the same time, Burma is undergoing a transition to democracy. With elections on the horizon, the future of Burma may start to take shape, showing the world exactly how far the country has come since it last held nation-wide elections in 2010.

Women have so much to contribute to these efforts -- to the peace process, to the economy, and to the leadership and direction of Burma’s future. And when they have every opportunity to contribute, the entire country will benefit.  

We’ve seen this over and over again around the world. Economies are stronger when women are in the labor force and afforded the same opportunities as men. Outcomes from peace negotiations are better when women have seats at the table. Countries are more stable when women are valued and given opportunities to reach their full potential.

The government of Burma has taken steps to recognize the invaluable ways women can help in the country’s development. There’s a national strategic plan that outlines twelve priority areas to advance gender equality and a draft law against domestic violence in the works.

But more must be done to empower women by acknowledging their rights and ending the pandemic of gender-based violence. In Burma’s most important institutions -- the government, the military, and some powerful civil society groups -- women are underrepresented, which means their status and political influence are limited.

Too often women’s roles are marginalized because they are seen as victims instead of potential leaders. But I’ve seen firsthand how women in Burma can lead. Earlier this year I met May Sabe Phyu, who was recognized with the Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award for her work to end discrimination against women and minorities in Burma.

May Sabe Phyu was a social worker for people living with HIV/AIDS when she saw how women in Liberia had pushed for peace in their country. She wanted to do the same in Burma, so she co-founded networks for peace in Kachin state, drawing attention to the challenges facing ethnic minority women in conflict zones. She also worked with the government to promote women’s involvement in the peace process and respond to gender-based violence.

May Sabe Phyu is a powerful example of how women can be peacemakers and leaders working for inclusive democracy and progress in Burma.  Along with many other women in her country, she is proof that women won’t wait for their issues to be addressed -- and when it comes to solving any pressing issue, we don’t want them to wait either.  Even in the face of so many challenges, women in Burma are doing great things for their country. Imagine what they can do if their voices, perspectives, and leadership are fully included. 

About the Author: Cathy Russell serves as the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears on the Huffington Post Women blog.


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Dennis B.
Virginia, USA
May 11, 2015
Nice piece. I have been to Burma several times early on, I led a medical/vision mission in January of last year and noted that a lot of work needs to be done in this area going forward. If you are interested in the report, I prepared for Lions Clubs International who funded the effort, I would be happy to send it to you. Keep up the good work.
Laura H.
Massachusetts, USA
May 11, 2015
Phyu Phyu is amazing, and a great leader, but she is one of many Myanmar women doing amazing work in the country! You can meet many of these women at the Gender Equality Network meetings (of which Phyu Phyu is the Director), at the Women's Organizations Network, and the Women's League of Burma. Among women, and some men, the issue of gender equality is gaining traction. This is great, but there is a long way to go. There are many issues surrounding and contributing to the problem of inequality and violence (physical, emotional, and economic) towards women within the country. It cannot be denied that religion plays an extremely important role in Myanmar society and culture, and one predominant problem is the fact that it inequality is predominantly denied by this community, for both religious and cultural reasons. Like most countries, including our own, Madam Ambassador, gender inequality is ingrained in the system, in the culture. "Protecting our women" is a phrase used often, by the government and by religious leaders. Women are seen as "victims", not as "survivors". The religious and ethnic tension, push for development, and political transition has both allowed for and encouraged a dismissal of women, of half the population, under the presumption that fixing this problem can come later. Myanmar needs pressure, it needs someone to speak out against the ignorance it is employing and encouraging. I hope, Madam Ambassador, that your visit will prove productive, for both you and for this country.
Eric J.
New Mexico, USA
May 13, 2015

It could rightfully be said that a nation that doesn't appreciate the contribution women can make is simply up a creek with only half a paddle.

Kind of hard to make progress in the currents of change without the whole of society rowing together.


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