Women living in Myanmar’s conflict areas face enormous pressure from ethnic autonomous organizations to support a war effort that does not necessarily serve their interests. These pressures are subtle, and often invisible to development actors who focus on tackling intersections of gender and conflict that are more overt. As a result, advocacy efforts do not always reach women who need them most at the ground level. Building on my previous discussions of the need to see beyond the visible, and overcome divides between international and national-level peacebuilding actors, here I argue that gender advocates should work alongside women in communities to understand the social dimensions of conflict. To do this, we need a new approach to gender advocacy—one that incorporates an ethic of partnership dedicated to bringing these “invisible” spaces to light.
I have a good friend who is an ethnic women’s rights activist in Myanmar. Recently, we sat together in a teashop in Yangon and she told me the story of her mother, who was born in a rural village in Kachin, Burma’s northernmost ethnic state. As a child, her mother traveled on foot weekly between her village and the border of China, where she traded goods to help her family survive. At fourteen, after completing grade eight, she was recruited to join the Kachin Independence Army, or KIA.
She became a soldier and went to fight. She was told this was all for a cause—a cause much greater than her, that meant life or death and the survival of her people. This cause, she was told, was more important than going to school, than pursuing her own aspirations, or escaping to some other, far away-seeming world. This was her world.
She was expected to marry, and have children. Her new husband was also a soldier, and always put the war effort first. In the momentum of these choices that were made for her—choices that were never hers to make—she gave up the possibility of advancing goals beyond those of the movement she was told to support. Goals that her daughter, living out in a world her mother never knew, is now realizing.
My friend is not close with her mother. “She doesn’t understand women’s activism,” she explained. In fact, she added, her mother doesn’t understand the idea of gender equality at all.
There is a rift between this mother and her daughter—a rift around what it means to commit to a cause that is greater than oneself, a cause more important than women’s lives, centered around national identity and the unity of a people. This rift reveals that conflict in Myanmar is not limited to what takes place between ethnic communities and the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar army)—it happens within communities, and within families themselves.
Women are often made false promises during times of war. As Dyan Mazurana (2012) has noted, ethnic armed organizations often promise women a better life after the conflict is over, reasoning that when peace comes, the goals of gender equality will finally be realized. In the meantime, however, women are expected to take up arms, migrate across borders, or forgo education to support a conflict that is not of their making. These sacrifices go unnoticed until they grow roots and are entrenched—the mother who tells her daughter she should not seek a higher education because it isn’t necessary to advancing the family’s status in society (only marriage and children can do that). The daughter who bears the guilt of her mother’s limitations and sends money home—whatever small amount she can—month by month, from her good job in Yangon. She is welcomed home, but she can never really go home. Her feminist work has set her apart from the very women that work ultimately tries to empower.
The social dimensions of gender advocacy
Responding to the plight of women like my friend’s mother, many gender advocacy organizations in Myanmar strive to reach beneficiaries at the most local levels of society. Part of this work involves raising awareness on the ground about conventions such as UNSCR 1325, which is dedicated to women’s participation and representation in conflict prevention and resolution, and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which draws a conceptual link between gender parity, peace and development. Grassroots women’s rights organizations seek to advance the goals of these agreements by advocating for women’s participation in peace negotiations and bringing international attention to the effects of armed conflict on women. These organizations also work to combat traditional gender stereotypes, educate communities about peacebuilding and justice, and organize workshops on gender-based violence in ethnic communities.
Yet the impacts of these gender-related programs are not always felt by women at the village level. Conversely, being caught between allegiances within one’s community or family is a social constraint seldom addressed in high-level policy negotiations, or given voice in projects looking at gender discrimination. This may have to do with the fact that many grassroots women’s organizations are, to varying degrees, themselves aligned with the armed organizations controlling the territories in which they work. Some organizations report having difficulty advocating for gender equality among armed actors, revealing a tension constantly felt by advocates who live and work in these environments.
Moreover, being caught between allegiances—what I am calling a “social dimension” of conflict—can affect women working in the structures of rights organizations themselves. An example of this can be seen in the case of another friend, who worked for an ethnic women’s rights organization for many years. At a certain point, she felt ready to advance her career by seeking a job in an international development organization that would afford her a better salary and advance her career. Such opportunities, previously unavailable to Myanmar nationals when the country was still closed, are now on offer to those with the right qualifications. However, when the organization learned about her desire to leave, she was told that doing so would be a betrayal—that the “cause” was more important than her own personal advancement. In essence, the rights organization mirrored the tactics used by conflict actors to hold women back.
Again, we see the subtle ways in which conflict entrenches itself into women’s lives. While international convention and gender advocacy groups work hard to press for change at the policy level, the experiences of women who live and work in conflict-affected communities remains comparatively less understood.
Women’s rights and the narrative of war
Ethnic autonomous organizations have, on occasion, spoken out about women’s rights. But their advocacy is rarely attuned to the social dimensions of conflict I am describing. Instead, women’s rights are presented through the lens of the war narrative itself, showcasing how the “other” conflict actor is to blame for women’s mistreatment. In this way, “women’s issues” are used to exemplify the way armed conflict—not the social constraints that perpetuate it—keeps women oppressed.
This dynamic can be seen in the case of the rape and murder of two Kachin schoolteachers in Northern Shan State in early 2015. Civil society actors quickly assigned blame for these crimes to the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s army, which is notorious for committing acts of sexual violence against civilians with impunity. Recently, senior Tatmadaw members agreed to testify in a civilian court—a landmark achievement for ethnic actors seeking to bring the Myanmar military to account for its systemic crimes of sexual violence in conflict. The trial, however, has since derailed due to army’s blocking civilian involvement, preventing Kachin community leaders question the defendants directly. The case highlights the sweeping powers of the military and the lack of recourse for ethnic leaders to seek justice for what they see as being war crimes.
This case, and its fallout, is an illustration of the way women’s bodies and lives are impacted by conflict. But it is more than that. The case also shows us how women’s experiences of violence are used by armed actors themselves to serve a narrative of war. This narrative eclipses the fact that war inherently endangers all women and degrades their human rights. Moreover, and critically, it leaves out the voices of the very women who have been most impacted by conflict—in this case, the Kachin school teachers themselves.
The role of international advocates
By focusing on the more overt and dramatic effects of conflict, as well as on policy advocacy issues, gender advocates risk overlooking the more subtle divides and social constraints that many women experience on a daily basis. However, these areas of focus do not have to be exclusive. International gender advocates can work to raise awareness around the seemingly “invisible,” difficult-to-reach spaces of social divide while also advancing policy advocacy aims.
International actors are, in fact, in a unique position to take on these dual challenges. As “outside” actors looking through a more detached lens, they are well-positioned to call attention to the constraints that ethnic women face, but do not feel authorized or safe to push against. They can help shed light on problematic cultural norms and on the “taken-for-granted” ways that ethnic communities hold women back.
Often though, as I’ve pointed out in my previous writing, Western actors doing this type of work are treated with suspicion, seen as paternalistic, or worse, as seeking to advance an agenda of dominance. The “Western versus third world feminist” divide—discussed extensively by post-colonial feminist scholars, is an ongoing problem in many development spaces. This divide, which Chandra Mohanty (2002) characterized as the “third world difference” illustrates the problem of Western feminists who “speak on behalf of” women in the developing world. In doing so, Mohanty explained, Western feminists enact an arrogant assumption that they know what’s best for women in these contexts. As elsewhere, Western gender advocates in Myanmar risk falling into this trap.
In order to avoid replicating this divide, I suggest that Western practitioners re-frame the way we look at gender advocacy, by taking into account the experiences of women who may not seem to be affected by armed conflict in overt ways. The rift between mothers who have had no choice but to follow the mandate of war and their daughters who, in becoming women’s rights activists, have seemingly “abandoned” that cause; the pressures faced by women’s rights organization members who are equally bound to a cause considered more important than their own needs; and the ways in which women’s experiences of sexual violence in conflict become co-opted to support a narrative of war, while leaving out the experiences of the very women who have suffered this violence, all speak to a need for a different kind of attention to gender and conflict.
An ethic of partnership
How can development practitioners working on gender strengthen the approach we take to gender and conflict? I suggest we begin by incorporating a new ethic into our work, one that puts importance on women’s experiences of everyday life. I would call this approach an “ethic of partnership.” From a practical standpoint, this approach would take several forms.
First, it would require focusing advocacy efforts on places where women are not currently being reached. Program design should be based on, and inclusive of women at the local level who are rarely given a voice in conversations about women’s rights—in part because they do not have any pre-existing framework to guide their understanding of these issues. Allowing women to speak about their experiences, and taking those experiences seriously, requires being attuned to the paternalism Mohanty warned against. It also requires not being afraid to tackle social problems that are happening within ethnic communities out of fear of being insensitive to culture.
Next, an ethic of partnership would ask that advocates prioritize social inquiries at an institutional level. This would involve utilizing the structures of international organizations to access funding and raise awareness about the seemingly less-obvious places where gender and conflict intersect. International actors are well-positioned to work within these structures, which are inaccessible to many local women. They can build relationships with donors and access fundraising channels that, if done right, can benefit people on the ground in meaningful ways. This requires that local and international practitioners strengthen alliances between their organizations.
Finally, incorporating an ethic of partnership into gender advocacy means approaching this space with a new curiosity about women’s experiences of the mundane. Research in this area could look at the dynamics of family, work, and faith, and connect these inquiries to advocacy projects. It would allow for a diverse array of disciplines to inform new types of interventions. On the programming side, funds benchmarked for “gender” issues should not be considered ancillary to peacebuilding or development work—they should, instead, be made integral components.
Women caught in the throes of conflict grapple with conflicting allegiances—not only to armed organizations, but also to family members, communities, and women’s rights organizations themselves. These struggles show us how women’s everyday lives are impacted by armed conflict. In order to better understand these issues, development practitioners should take a new approach to the places we look and the lens through which we see. Above all else, we need to constantly interrogate the ethical approach we take to our work. Doing so could help give voice to—and ultimately repair—the seemingly impenetrable spaces of division experienced by so many women in Myanmar.