Since the attempted military coup in Myanmar in February 2021, Myanmar has fallen into a state of despair. Two-thirds of the Karenni population, one of the country’s minority groups, have been displaced. Gender-based violence is a widespread problem, and the conflict has made the situation for women and girls in the country increasingly worse.
“Since conflict broke out, social violence has become widespread, and the military is notorious for its brutal sexual and structural violence. Women face potential danger everywhere, and it’s getting worse by the day”, says a representative of The Karenni National Women's Organization (KNWO), a women’s grassroots organization that was established by refugee women in a Karenni refugee camp in 1993. Due to the sensitivity of her work, she will remain anonymous.
Situated in the eastern part of Myanmar, Karenni State has a population of around 300,000 people. In 2022, the amount of internally displaced people reached a devastating 280,000. According to the activist, with the ongoing fighting between the military and the People's Defence Force in the state capital of Loikaw, an additional 30,000 people are likely to be displaced.
KNWO works to promote equal rights and opportunities for Karenni women in political, economic, and social spheres. In addition, the organisation provides support and services for the survivors of domestic and gender-based violence. With nearly the whole population displaced, the majority of the organisation’s activities take place in refugee camps in Karenni State’s internally displaced people (IDP) sites.
“Joining KNWO has led to a great transformation in my life. The women are highly inspirational and have made me see things differently and truly understand the mechanisms we need to change in our society, and not the least highly motivated me to work for that change”, says the woman activist.
Myanmar has a long way to go when it comes to transformation of gender norms: “Domestic violence is a common problem. The patriarchal system is deeply rooted in society, and the cultural mindset is very fixed. In addition, there are no proper mechanism or policies in place for the protection of women and girls. The perpetrators go unpunished”, KNOW’s representative explains.
16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence has become an annual event for KNWO. “Being part of the global women’s movement is important to us, and ‘16 Days’ is great for awareness building. Before the attempted coup, we conducted 16 days activism in Bawlakhe Township in Karenni State. But our event was forced to stop. They didn’t allow us to celebrate. But we still mark this global moment, especially in our refugee- and IDPs areas,” she says.
KNWO counts around 400 staff and volunteers in refugee camps and IDP camps. The organisation is part of a larger network of woman organisations located in different townships across the state, as well as nation-wide organisations.
“We all work to promote women’s rights, but we cover different areas. We have a widespread network in Karenni state. On national level, we are a member of Women's League of Burma, an umbrella organisation for all the ethnic women organisations,” the woman activist says.
A key issue for KNWO is to push political institutions for political change and promote participation and representation of women in public society. Currently they are pushing for the Karenni state consultative council, which is the political platform where all revolutionary organisations are represented, to adopt a gender policy framework. An executive pillar and judicial pillar have already been established. What remains is the establishment of a legislative pillar.
So far, the women's organisations have been able to get two positions in the Karenni state consultative council. “With two civil society representatives in place, carrying the wisdom of all the women organisations with them, we can advocate within the system we are trying to change”, she says.
In her experience, women issues are always being depoliticised. “My message for this year’s 16 days campaign, is that women’s issues are political issues, and something that all political decision makers need to take seriously”.
Through awareness building on how women are being marginalised throughout political processes, the revolutionary actors in the conflict have slowly become aware that during the revolution, women are also being captured and targeted. “This is not an issue for female soldiers only, it goes for medical staff, teachers, homemaker, and mothers taking care of children. Many of the roles traditionally occupied by women are considered low status, making them especially vulnerable during conflict. This is important to acknowledge, and we see attitudes slowly changing”, she adds.
It is not without risk that Myanmar’s women activists have taken on the fight against gender inequality. “There are lots of obstacles and we constantly get threatened, both from the perpetrator and from the local community”, the activist explains. “That is why we have organised. Working alongside other women gives us courage”.