Supporting Women’s Leadership in Myanmar’s Rakhine State
Women and Girls Empowered (WAGE), Search for Common Ground, & Grameen Foundation
The ABA ROLI-led Women and Girls Empowered (WAGE) consortium funded by the U.S. Department of State Office of Global Women’s Issues is pleased to announce its new initiative “Addressing Barriers to Sustainable Peace and Stability in Myanmar”. This initiative is launched during a challenging time. Myanmar is scheduled to hold its general elections later this year, after the elections in 2010 ended five decades of military rule and paved the way for a series of key political, economic and social reforms. The 2020 elections will mark the end of the first term for the National League of Democracy political party, which was elected in 2015 on a promise of delivering peace after decades of protracted conflict between Myanmar’s many armed groups and the military. The elections will be held at a time when the country grapples with its response to the COVID-19 outbreak – the effects of which will be especially felt by rural and conflict-affected communities. The run up to the elections and the unfolding pandemic risk introduce new conflict dynamics that could create fertile ground for further deepening the divisions and distrust across the country.
These dynamics are already at work in Rakhine State. As one of the poorest states in Myanmar, Rakhine has seen intermittent waves of violent conflict since the country’s independence, and over the past 10 years the escalation of violent conflict has resulted in thousands of civilian deaths and displacements. This, coupled with chronic poverty and inequitable access to services and opportunities, has fostered deep-seated distrust along ethnic and religious lines, as well as between the citizens, civil society, and local authorities. As politicians seek to shore up support ahead of the elections, there is a risk that these divides may become politicized and exploited. (1)
Amidst this, women and girls are taking on a multitude of roles – including as peacebuilders, as leaders, as breadwinners. Women and girls’ experience of the continued violence in Rakhine state has been profoundly gendered. Since the escalation of conflict between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw in 2019, more than 157,000 people have been displaced and many remain in internally displaced person (IPD) camps in Rakhine, of which over half (53%) are women (2). In conflict, women are disproportionately affected by sexual violence, human trafficking and other rights abuses, and these vulnerabilities are exacerbated in IDP camps (3). Women and girls are also directly impacted by reduced access to safe and clean water, affordable health services and economic opportunities – issues which affect women-headed households most. Unequal access to viable and decent livelihood opportunities is a key driver of conflict in Rakhine and one that is also experienced for women, who lack equal access to income, assets, capital, and decent work as a result of entrenched gender norms and discrimination (4/5). Rakhine state has been recognized by the United Nations as one of five states in Myanmar exposed to further impoverishment and human development regression triggered by the COVID-19 crisis, shrinking the already limited space for women’s economic participation. (6)
Despite these challenges, women are crucial leaders in Myanmar’s formal and informal peace processes. Women-led organizations focusing on women’s issues, activists and leaders have long driven and advocated for democratic reform, good governance and an inclusive peace process in Myanmar (7). Still, despite their invaluable contributions to Myanmar’s transition, women remain sidelined in the formal peace process (8). While the government of Myanmar has adopted the 2013-2022 National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women (NSPAW) – which provides a clear policy framework for advancing women’s rights across 12 priority areas including economic life, livelihoods, decision-making, and human rights – women remain severely underrepresented in decision-making bodies at the national and regional levels, especially women from ethnic and religious minorities and young women (9). Additionally, women’s interests are not adequately represented at the local level because they are excluded in multiple community stakeholder platforms. As an example, only 0.25% of village administrators are women, and demands by activists to include a 30% quota for women in the formal peace process continue to be unmet (10). Women also continue to have unmet needs with regards to their technical leadership skills and confidence; and face pervasive patriarchal norms and gender stereotypes that impede women from taking leadership positions.
As the violence in Rakhine escalates, there is an urgent need, and opportunity, to shift that narrative. It is imperative that women’s contributions as peacebuilders in Myanmar are recognized, amplified and supported, so that women and girls can in turn be meaningfully included in the processes that will affect them. To rise up to that opportunity, two of WAGE’s core partners, Search for Common Ground and Grameen Foundation, will work in close partnership with local partner Yaung Chi Thit to support a cohort of women leaders in Rakhine State with targeted training, resources, linkages and networks.
The Addressing Barriers to Sustainable Peace and Stability in Myanmar initiative will support women political and civil society leaders through an extensive capacity building and seed granting program to implement Collaborative Action Plans in their communities. The plans, developed and executed by the women leaders, will seek to address some of the most pressing barriers to peace and economic development in the project’s two target townships, Sittwe and Kyauk Phyu. These barriers will be identified at the onset of the project through a needs assessment, which will inform the Collaborative Action Plans and ensure they are rooted in the realities on the ground. Women leaders will receive training to equip them with the appropriate tools they may need to support their communities, including Search’s Common Ground Approach to peacebuilding and Grameen’s collection of flagship trainings on Women’s Economic Empowerment related topics.
The project also hopes to establish and facilitate Women’s Action Labs, women-only safe spaces where women can come together, collaborate, and lead community initiatives to support inclusive peace and prosperity in Rakhine. To implement their peacebuilding and economic development initiatives, women leaders will receive seed grants and be connected to external services and networks that can further support them, such as microfinance institutions (MFIs), agricultural services, vocational or job training providers, and committees or working groups furthering peace and security in Myanmar. This work will be enhanced by social media campaigns, implemented by women leaders who will have participated in trainings on mobile journalism and social media campaigning offered as part of the capacity building program. The campaigns will showcase the positive results of women’s peacebuilding and economic development initiatives and will demonstrate the value of women’s political and economic participation at the community level.
The Addressing Barriers to Sustainable Peace and Stability in Myanmar initiative is centered around the belief that when structural barriers to women’s leadership are recognized and addressed in a comprehensive manner, and women’s full potential as peacebuilders is unlocked, communities benefit from more inclusive, and therefore more sustainable, peace and development processes.
(1) USIP. 2019. Myanmar’s 2020 Elections and Conflict Dynamics. https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/2019-04/pw_146-myanmars_2020_election_and_conflict_dynamics.pdf
(2) Reliefweb. 2020. Humanitarian Needs Overview: Myanmar. https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/MMR_HNO_2020_FINAL_131219.pdf
(3) Reliefweb. 2020. Humanitarian Needs Overview: Myanmar. https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/MMR_HNO_2020_FINAL_131219.pdf, p.16
(4) Search for Common Ground. 2019. Participatory Research on Service Provision in Rakhine. https://www.sfcg.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/SFCG_EEU011_SCBSD_Final-Report_16June2020.pdf
(5) Paung Sie Facility. 2016. The Women Are Ready. https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/the_women_are_ready_english__1.pdf
(6) UNSDG. 2020. A UN Framework for the Immediate Socio-Economic Response to COVID-19 in Myanmar. https://reliefweb.int/report/myanmar/un-framework-immediate-socio-economic-response-covid-19-myanmar
(7) Peace Support Fund. 2019. The Women are Ready. http://www.paungsiefacility.org/uploads/3/0/1/8/30181835/women_are_ready_eng_feb2019_lowres.pdf
(8) 4 out of 78 participants within Myanmar’s NCA mechanisms are women. Women comprise just 9% of the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee members; and have no representation at the union level.
(9) UNFPA. 2013. National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women (2013-2022). https://myanmar.unfpa.org/en/publications/national-strategic-plan-advancement-women-2013-2022
(10) Joint Peace Fund. 2018. Promoting meaningful participation of women in the peace process. https://reliefweb.int/report/myanmar/promoting-meaningful-participation-women-peace-process
(11) Areas include: Financial literacy, including microfinance services and products; Savings group formation and management; Market assessment to identify viable markets for women microentrepreneurs’ products and services; Business development and growth; soft skills, linkages to vocational trainings.