“Women’s role is to ease tensions,” a public relations expert of an ethnic armed group told me as I sat in his office in northern Burma (also called Myanmar). He and his male colleagues were trying to explain why women could not be part of cease-fire negotiations to resolve internal armed conflicts dating back to Burma’s independence in 1948. “Women are not negotiators; they are not diplomatic actors.”
Women activists I spoke with in Burma strongly disagree. Many are mobilized to participate in the rebuilding of their war-torn country and are putting forward recommendations on everything from cease-fires to political power-sharing.
Just as important, bluntly sexist sentiments like the above ignore the impact that Burma’s conflicts have had on women and the need for them to be sufficiently represented to ensure meaningful participation at the talks.
While Burma’s most famous woman, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the ruling National League for Democracy, heads the government delegation to the 21st Century Panglong Conference, which opened in Naypyitaw on Wednesday, female participation in attempts to stop the fighting has been minimal. During the largely failed peace processes in Burma over the past several years, the government, military and ethnic groups chose few women to participate, and hardly any were assigned leadership roles. There have been only 10 women among 195 senior delegates in Burma’s eight major peace efforts since 2012.
As one women’s rights activist told me, the only space for women to influence negotiations is during what she called “tea-break advocacy” – where women left outside formal decision-making discussions must try to lobby delegation members when they stop for tea.
The exclusion of women is particularly noticeable in negotiations regarding security sector reform, demobilization and disarmament of armed groups, and cease-fire monitoring. The male negotiators on these “hard security” matters have routinely dismissed the relevance of women’s rights and the presence of women in negotiations.
Failure to include more women at the Panglong Conference is more than an oversight. It contradicts a raft of international commitments on the important role of women in ending conflict. International human rights law and the principles contained inUnited Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 and subsequent resolutions on women, peace and security oblige governments to take steps to remove discrimination against women in public life, and to respect their right to take part in public affairs. These principles should set the standard for the essential role of women in Burma in preventing and ending armed conflicts. This includes their participation in peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and post-conflict reconstruction.
The inclusion of women and a broad range of Burma’s ethnic groups is vital to the success of the democratic transition. All parties with a stake in the Panglong Conference should be concerned about women’s rights, including the Burmese government, the military and the ethnic armed groups. Suu Kyi, in particular, should speak out on the importance of women’s participation. So, too, should international actors who are supporting the peace process, including governments, donors, nongovernmental organizations and the United Nations. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was in Burma for the opening of the conference. He and others should publicly and privately urge full and substantive participation by women in all peace negotiations. Donor governments – especially the U.S., the U.K. and China, which are some of the largest contributors to Burma – and agencies should follow up by providing sustainable and effective support for women’s rights organizations and other independent actors championing women’s inclusion in the peace process and Burma’s broader political transition.
The Panglong Conference is the perfect time to move women’s rights away from the idle chatter of tea breaks and into the main room. Resolving Burma’s armed conflicts and their underlying causes depends on the participation of all elements of Burmese society, not just the half that is male. The question is whether the Burmese government and armed groups will finally act on what others have known for years: women have a crucial role to play in peace processes and in the promotion of the human rights that are at the heart of durable peace agreements.