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Meet some lesser-known women who have worked in her shadow, taking bold steps toward a more just country.
Aung San Suu Kyi will be in Norway this weekend to receive the Nobel Peace Prize that was awarded to her in 1991 during her many years of imprisonment and house arrest by Myanmar’s military junta. When she is handed the award and delivers her acceptance speech, it will be a crowning moment for a dissident who continues to attract worldwide attention as a global symbol of resistance, courage and hope. And yet, while The Lady, as she is fondly known in Myanmar, dominates the headlines, there are many women in Myanmar who have worked in her shadow and taken similarly bold steps – often at great risk to themselves and their families – to work for a better, more just country.
The contributions of Aung San Suu Kyi and these many other women who have worked for justice prove all the more remarkable because of Myanmar’s dearth of women in leadership positions across virtually every sector; traditional cultures that have encouraged women to be inconspicuous wives who focus on taking care of the home and children; and the impact of decades of conflict and poverty on women’s wellbeing.
In the first part of this Special Report, GlobalPost’s Hanna Ingber returns to Myanmar, also known as Burma, where she lived for a year under the harsh rule of the military junta, and brings us the stories of women the world has not seen nor celebrated, but who have worked quietly and persistently toward change.
YANGON, Myanmar – Zin Mar Aung’s friends told her not to get involved.
Everyone reminded her that if you joined the student protests breaking out in Yangon, you could face serious consequences. The army had beaten, arrested and even gunned down thousands of members of a previous generation of students during nationwide protests in 1988.
“She is my daughter, but I did not own her – our country owns her.”~Aung Kyi, father of Zin Mar Aung
So when Zin Mar Aung along with hundreds of students decided to take to the streets in 1996, demanding the freedom to form student unions and release of jailed student activists, she knew she may have to pay a price. And she did.
In 1998, the military arrested her at the age of 22, and she endured 11 years in a filthy, bug-infested prison. But as soon as she was released in 2009, she began her pro-democracy work again, determined to do her part to resist the oppression of the military junta that had taken control of the country. It is work that she continues to this day.
At age of 36, she distributes relief to women and children who have fled fighting between the Myanmar army and Kachin rebels. She also works with other former female political prisoners to help them adjust to society. And she is learning how to properly monitor elections.
Zin Mar Aung is one of the many quiet voices of women who fought long and hard for justice in Myanmar.
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And women, as many rights activists and political observers point out, have paid a disproportionately high price in this fight for democracy while they toiled under a half-century of rule by a male-dominated, repressive military. Consider:
*Human rights organizations say that rape by the military has been a persistent reality against ethnic women across different conflict areas for decades. Both Human Rights Watch and Kachin Women’s Association Thailand recently put out reports accusing the Myanmar army of ongoing abuses and rape in Kachin State, where fighting has raged since last June.
*Mostly women and children fill the internally displaced persons camps created to help those fleeing violence. The past year of fighting in Kachin State has displaced upwards of 75,000 people. Another 140,000 people who fled fighting in eastern Myanmar live in refugee camps in Thailand, and at least 446,000 internally displaced persons live in the eastern border region of Myanmar and Thailand.
*While school enrollment ratios for girls and boys have almost achieved parity, decades of economic mismanagement and high levels of poverty have made girls particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking and exploitation.
*The military government’s lack of investment in healthcare for decades has created a health crisis for Myanmar’s women. Some midwives in rural areas are responsible for overseeing 40 to 50 villages each. A third of the country’s women do not have access to free contraceptives, leading to unwanted and unhealthy pregnancies. In eastern Myanmar, preventable causes like postpartum hemorrhaging and unsafe abortion drive up the maternal mortality rate to 721 deaths per 100,000 live births. In conflicted and internally displaced persons areas, the rate spikes to 1000 to 1200 per 100,000 live births, according to Ibis Reproductive Health.
Cultural conservatism in Myanmar also dissuades women from being empowered leaders.
“Because of the cultural context, women are always behind the man,” said Yin Yin Maw, the president of the Myanmar Council of Churches and a gender activist. If women try to move beyond the role of supporting their husband or father and become outspoken, she continued, they often face harassment and criticism.
Despite these difficulties, individual women in Myanmar have been fighting to be heard. And now, as the country embarks on an exciting time of transition, their voices are growing louder.
A slight change in women’s involvement has already been seen in parliament. Before the April 1 by-elections, the parliament’s 613-filled seats included only 18 women, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Women, Myanmar still ranked 135 out of 143 in terms of global female political participation but the by-elections increased the number of women holding seats by a dozen.
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And on June 16 when Aung San Suu Kyi, who herself was elected to parliament, receives her Nobel Prize, she is expected to say — as her son said in accepting the award on her behalf in 1991 and she has said so many times before — that the award is not just for her. She will likely say the Nobel Peace Prize is for all of the men, women and children who sacrificed so much in pursuit of a democratic Myanmar.
She is also likely to offer thanks to women like Zin Mar Aung who put their lives on the line for what they believed in. And to Naw She’ Wah, who worked on behalf of the many men and women infected with HIV who were shunned by society and left to die. And Htar Htar, who has worked on a campaign against sexual violence directed at women. They are the stories of three quietly courageous women who are doing their part to help Myanmar move closer to democracy.