Recognizing the brave women fighting for democracy and gender equality on International Women’s Day

By May Sabe Phyu
08 March 2021
Recognizing the brave women fighting for democracy and gender equality on International Women’s Day
May Sabe Phyu speaks at a protest. Photo: Khin Su Kyi

As we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, I want to recognize and applaud the thousands of brave women of Myanmar standing up for democracy. As someone who has fought for women’s rights for decades, it is incredibly powerful and heartening to see so many young women taking to the streets and making their voices heard.

Women have been at the front lines of the peaceful protests against the military coup since Day 1. They make up a majority of the Civil Disobedience Movement. Their positions might not be high up in the government, hospitals, banks and other places of work, but they are powerful. Without these women, it is impossible for the country to function. By standing firm and not giving in to threats, these women are ensuring this resistance movement will ultimately succeed.

While inspiring, it is also worrying. Even though they are protesting and striking peacefully, we are concerned for the safety of women and girls, some of whom have already been harmed and even killed. 20-year-old Mya Thwet Thwet Khine was the first, and will likely not be the last.

We must stand with these brave women as they fight for democracy and a better future. And as we move forward as a democratic country, we must embrace women’s capabilities to lead – not just the State Counsellor, but at all levels from wards and villages, to states and regions.

Research by my think tank, the Gender Equality Network, and our partners has shown that women are largely not viewed as leaders or decision-makers. Traditional and cultural beliefs, held by men and women, are barriers to more women taking leadership positions. But we also see many courageous women smashing through those barriers and demonstrating their leadership skills, such as the many healthcare workers who have been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, and now C.D.M.

We must recognize the varied and vital roles women play in our society – not just as mothers, daughters and sisters – but as business owners, educators, politicians, civil servants, doctors, nurses, engineers, scientists, volunteers. The list of possibilities should be endless.

Moving forward, we will need more research into the barriers keeping women from participating not only in politics, but the peace building process and economic sphere, in order to identify effective solutions to remove obstacles. We also need to better understand how we can support women fighting for human rights and democracy.

International support for this research has been and will continue to be crucial, especially because the military is not likely to fund it. I hope the international community continues to support this work --  please don’t abandon Myanmar’s people and researchers now. Data and evidence are essential for addressing gender equality and other important issues. Continuing this work will be critical for ensuring a brighter, more equal future for all our people.

Progress is not a fast or easy process, but we’re not giving up. On this International Women’s Day, celebrating the contributions of women to society, we applaud the young women of Myanmar not giving up on their future. We hear your calls for democracy and justice. We’re with you. Together, we will build a more equal and inclusive future.

May Sabe Phyu is the director of the Gender Equality Network, a diverse and inclusive network of more than 130 civil society organisations, national and international NGOs, and technical resource persons working to bring about gender equality and the fulfilment of women’s rights in Myanmar.