The Debate

Three Years After the Myanmar Coup, Women Human Rights Defenders Remain at the Forefront

Recent Features

The Debate | Opinion

Three Years After the Myanmar Coup, Women Human Rights Defenders Remain at the Forefront

Many women activists and revolutionaries are working to ensure that the fall of the military will also lead to a revolution in gender equality.

Three Years After the Myanmar Coup, Women Human Rights Defenders Remain at the Forefront

Anti-coup protesters set up a road barricade, with women’s clothing hanging overhead to mark the International Women’s Day in Yangon, Myanmar, Monday, March 8, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo

Three years have passed since the military coup in Myanmar. Since then, the resistance movement has flourished into an inspired example of people’s power and the defiance of authoritarian forces. In the eyes of the military, the hijacking of the 2020 general election and subsequent coup attempt was an easy conquest. They thought that violence and their long-practiced orders of “shoot to kill would silence the civil unrest that immediately followed. It soon became clear that the generals gravely underestimated the will of the country’s people, who refused to inherit another era of military rule. The people’s rejection of the junta has been widespread and notable for the prominent role played by women in the revolution against military rule.

While the political, social, and armed aspects of the revolution have shifted, what has remained constant is the unwavering participation and leadership of women who have defied patriarchal systems, including gender stereotypes, and set an unquestionable new standard of what is possible for women and girls in Myanmar.

Women human rights defenders are resisting the military dictatorship in different ways despite the many challenges they face. They remain resilient and unwavering in their quest to see the fall of the junta. During these difficult times, women and girls, especially those from ethnic areas, including the Rohingya as well as those who identify as LGBTQ, have faced more forms of violence, including domestic assaults, sexual violence, rape, being coerced into sex work, and human trafficking.

No reliable justice mechanisms exist in Myanmar that can bring perpetrators to court and ensure accountability. Facing a myriad of barriers that prevent and undermine women’s participation, women human rights activists have defied the patriarchal systems promoted by the Myanmar military, which have been used to influence a culture that does not see women as equals.

Rather than submit to the military junta and its patriarchal dictates, women have increased their participation in various facets of the pro-democracy movement. The women’s rights movement has also become more intersectional than ever. Women from urban and rural backgrounds, different ages, ethnic groups, and religions have united in their shared goal of defeating the Myanmar armed forces, quashing the patriarchy, and ensuring gender equality.

In the immediate aftermath of the coup, many women human rights defenders were forced into exile. Many fled to border areas, their names rapidly reaching the top of the lists of those wanted by the junta. This also put a target on their family members. The threat of unlawful arrest and the possibility of torture and death has taken an immense strain on women fighting the military. Yet they have continued to resist the junta’s tactics of intimidation and terror in pursuit of a gender-equal future for Myanmar that is free from military rule.

Women human rights defenders have refused to adhere to Myanmar’s patriarchal status quo in many ways. This was evident through their strong participation in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), where many female majority professions, including garment workers, health care providers, teachers, engineers, police, and even those in the military, quit their jobs following the attempted coup and refused to work for the junta. The Gender Equality Network has estimated that women comprise over 60 percent of frontline protest leaders and roughly 70 to 80 percent of the CDM’s leaders.

Women are also on the literal frontlines of the war against the military, taking up arms or serving as combat medics. They are fundraising to support the resistance and creatively engaging in online campaigns, podcasts, visual art projects, and protests. Over two-thirds of the demonstrations after the coup comprised women, who were often the majority of those protesting. Women also continue to lead the effort in the provision of social services and humanitarian aid to conflict-affected areas. While, indeed, it is mostly men fighting in the armed resistance effort, the soldiers would not be able to do so without the sacrifices made by their mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters who have taken on additional responsibilities in the home and beyond as they adapt to new roles.

Women have been actively involved in resolving the many struggles of this revolution, including in the political, social, and armed arenas. However, there is still a lack of funding support and a lack of recognition within the resistance of women’s roles. There is also a lack of women’s participation in decision-making.

Findings from a new report called “Triple Resistance,” released this month by the Women’s League of Burma (WLB), a community-based organization working on the rights of the country’s women, revealed that despite the risks facing women human rights defenders, including threats to their physical and digital security,  they have not been discouraged. On the contrary, they remain committed to seeing an end to military rule – something that is only possible through the participation of women. Of the women interviewed for WLB’s report, nearly 100 percent are involved in humanitarian work, and 50 percent have taken on new roles in the political arena, particularly as federalism becomes more established.

Women-led organizations are driving relief efforts on the ground, particularly in conflict-affected areas of Myanmar. These organizations provide services for victims of gender-based violence, counseling, food kits, and dignity kits, including menstrual care items and materials for expectant or new mothers. In Karenni State, where the capital city is being attacked relentlessly, the Karenni National Women’s Organization is continuing its operations to ensure displaced and vulnerable communities receive urgently needed humanitarian assistance and access to safe houses as gender-based violence rises.

Similarly, in Karen State, the Karen Women’s Organization works with its networks to ensure the swift and secure delivery of aid through cross-border channels effectively and efficiently to meet the needs of displaced groups, the majority of whom are women and children.

In addition, as local leadership across ethnic states and regions in Myanmar adopt federal bodies and institutions, women have participated in leadership capacities and have been central to forming a new federal Myanmar.  For example, in Karenni State, women occupy several positions in the Karenni State Consultative Council, the Ta’ang Political Consultative Council, and other locally-driven bodies, as well as in People’s Administration Teams and village administrations.

Women leaders bring decades of experience working with armed actors and rights groups to provide security and protection for their communities. Their leadership must be recognized, encouraged, and accelerated. Without women, there is no sustainable development and consideration of gender perspectives during operations, service provision, or other political developments.

At an international level, governments and donors must understand that knowledge and expertise on locally-led challenges and solutions come from lived experiences and trust, which women and ethnic people can speak to. Global actors must recognize the efforts of women human rights defenders who continue to defy the status quo to ensure that the fall of the military junta will also lead to substantial improvements in gender equality. To do so, they must reinforce their commitment to amplify civil society organizations, including women-led initiatives. This new political space must be supported in order to hold the military junta accountable, at the International Criminal Court, if not in Myanmar itself.

In short, support of gendered programs, and for women’s participation more generally, is an integral part of the struggle against the military junta. Whether on the frontline, in political positions, or the classroom, women make up the substance of the revolution and are gradually carving out a new, progressive Myanmar. They deserve the world’s support.