YANGON, Myanmar — Never mind the fact that Myanmar's most famous person is a woman—Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. For women and girls, the nation formerly called Burma can often feel like a frustrating and hostile place.
In Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, 400 of the country's most influential women recently packed into a gaudily decorated ballroom for a sister-to-sister powwow—gathering their collective networks of lawmakers, activists and organizers to address the daily dangers posed to women in one of Asia's poorest nations.
A conference like this might not seem that special in the West.
But in Myanmar, the threats to womanhood are particularly treacherous. They include human trafficking, abuse by the military as well as rebel factions and a nearly all-male police force — making it difficult to get female-friendly treatment and easy to experience day-to-day discrimination.
Confronting these problems requires criticizing authorities—a crime which just a few years ago was punishable by long prison terms or worse.
So conferences like this would have been unimaginable just a few years back.
And herein lies the inimitability of this forum: Myanmar has entered a new era in which the military is loosening its grip and allowing critical voices to gather and to be heard.
The country's two largest woman-centered umbrella organizations are the Myanmar-based Women Organization Network and Women's League of Burma, which is still based in Thailand—the traditional home for Myanmar's exiled political factions.
The conference also marked the first time members of exiled organizations that are critical of the government were allowed to re-enter the country.
According to these groups, threats to women's rights range from institutional challenges—like having only a few women in parliament, police units and the courts—to sexual harassment. And as the central government tries to hold down peace agreements with more than a dozen armed ethnic groups, they feel the talks depend on sit-downs between powerful men with little input from women.
Dr. Nyo Nyo Thinn, one of Yangon's few female politicians, says women seldom report abuse from men because there are simply no female cops to confide in. There are also few female doctors, lawyers or judges. This makes women feel left out of the legal system.
All of this is compounded by the daily indignities caused by living in a very poor country.
"For a woman to report a rape in rural areas," Nyo Nyo Thinn says, "they would have to walk for hours to the nearest police station where they would have to describe to a male police officer what happened. The police officer would then make them travel another long way to get examined by a male doctor. They are discouraged right from the start."
There is also the matter of justice for the abuses. Susanna Hla Hla Soe is one of Myanmar's more influential women without a seat in parliament; at the conference, she kept up her day job as director of an ethnic Karen women's group, The Karen Women Empowerment Group, on her laptop in between speeches and private discussions with participants.
Since 2010, Susanna Hla Hla Soe has lobbied the president to involve more women in the peace process between armed rebel groups and the government. At the conference she told women not to be afraid to seek justice for any of the abuses they have endured.
"They have to responsible for what they did," she said. "And they have to pay for it under the law."
But in the country where resources like accurate records and data are extremely hard to come by, one participant posed a critical question: "How can we get together and monitor violence against women?"
There is a lot of work to be done on behalf of Myanmar's women, but still there was a liberated feeling in the air at the forum.
Only now are the nation's female movers and shakers able to openly call for change. Ending her speech Susanna Hla Hla Soe started chanting the conference slogan, as a reminder to the women that lasting peace can only be achieved if women are part of the equation:
"No woman. No peace. No woman. No peace."
Hundreds of voices followed her call, loud and unified, echoing through the hallways of the hotel.