Women in Civil Society | HART International Women’s Day Blog Series

28 February 2015

This is the first post in HART’s Blog Series for International Women’s Day 2015, taking place on the 8th March. Find out more here

Civil Society fills the gaps between the people and the government. Taking on a variety of forms, it is an arena in which ‘people take common actions to pursue common objectives without reward of profit or political power’. Unions, community-based organisations, associations, networks and social movements all take part in civil society with a focus on improving some aspects of society, prompting discussion and advocating for issues experienced by particular members.

Women across the world can take pride in their contributions to civil society. Women’s organisations have and continue to effect change and bring attention to issues affecting women and other members of communities. In the areas of conflict and instability in which HART’s partners work, women are often at increased risk of SGBV, trafficking, poverty and discrimination. In these environments, there is much to celebrate in terms of the achievements of strong and inspirational women as well as understated, heroic women all working to raise awareness of issues, facilitate care and education in a bid to bring about positive change for the future.

This post will explore civil society in Burma, where many of HART partners live. Through this article, we will discover the challenges faced that have prompted activity, some examples of inspirational women’s groups and challenges ahead prompting the question – what can you do to #makeithappen?

A brief contextual background of Burma

Decades of military rule and conflict across Burma, particularly in ethnic minority areas, has led to the widespread displacement of almost 3 million people. Men and women have been subjected to human rights abuses of forced labour and portering, forced displacement, torture and trafficking. Women in particular have suffered from systematic abuse and sexual violence with impunity. Along with human rights abuse, having to flee homes and living under an abusive military-controlled government until elections in 2011, in which the military continues to have a huge influence today, has resulted in a huge deficiency of healthcare and education, with problems of continuing livelihoods when forced to flee land. Coupled with traditional gender norms favouring the leadership of men, with women in the home – female members of civil society in Burma have a particularly difficult and therefore courageous starting point.

Civil society

The myriad civil society groups along the Thai-Burma border and inside Burma is hugely exciting. These progressive organisations have the opportunity to challenge gender norms and promote peace and security in their societies. Yet they must do this in difficult circumstances, as Dr Cynthia Muang, Director of Mae Tao clinic argued, ‘in the absence of constitutional reform, civil society and community-based organizations… are not in a position of equal partnership with the government. There is a lack of true representation at the local level’. In conflict areas, those providing care must do so at the risk of their own security. Nevertheless, many dedicate their time to work towards a peaceful and free Burma through providing capacity-building programs, leadership and political training of men and women as well as women’s empowerment programs. Civil society in Burma and on the border, have been instrumental in campaigning for gender equality, land rights, environmental protection, minority rights, democracy and against human rights abuses as well as providing basic needs such as health care and education.

Action has been taken through many different mediums. The most widely accessible worldwide, is through information and documentation which has led to reports being written on all issues by a wide range of organisations – demonstrating to the global community, the problems faced by ethnic minorities in Burma and providing recommendations for action by the Burmese government and the international community. Reports have been written to highlight sexual abuses by the Burma Army, land confiscations and problems of large scale developments, the fractured peace process and human rights atrocities.

Through organisations such as Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN), women from inside Burma are able to learn more about human rights, gender, and the importance of healthcare and education as well as sharing what they learn with their communities. Multiple organisations such as this also provide women’s empowerment programs and women’s exchanges to provide a familiar space for women to support each other. These organisations have been so successful that wide celebrations of International Women’s Day, Stop Violence Against Women Day, and International Day of Peace have been held across the country and been attended by people of all ages and genders.

Women in civil society are also contributing to the immediate support of refugees, IDPs and those living in remote areas through supporting education initiatives and training and providing materials for health workers. Schools have been set up in refugee camps and IDP areas to help ensure that this generation of migrants will not be a lost generation, but will instead be able to provide educated input into the development of a peaceful society, with the drive to move forward. HART supports programs such as Health and Hope in Chin state, Doh Say, a mobile health worker and his team in Karen and Karenni states, and SWAN providing maternal and infant support as well as emergency health care through those trained and returning to their villages. This work is particularly important as 70% of people surveyed in 2013 rely on ethnic and community based healthcare organisations compared to only 8% to have access to governmental healthcare.

Finally, of particular interest is the Women’s League of Burma (WLB) – an umbrella organisation comprised of 13 different CBOs representing Burma’s main ethnic groups. This network has gained a large following and dramatically raised the profile of and support for female activists and women leaders. WLB was even called upon by the UN to produce a shadow report, on the human rights situation. Furthermore, because of the positive reaction to women in civil society, many have been involved in meetings on amendments to the 2008 constitution, and are attending workshops and meetings worldwide to raise awareness of their situation.

Since the government in Burma is doing more to terrorise than to help its people, civil society has proved vital to advocate for and act to support the well being of local people. Women have been able to work together to highlight issues and engage discussion and positive action. Nevertheless, civil society in Burma, and women’s groups in particular, face many challenges to tackle in the future including; foreign aid (including from the UK government) channelling resources into Burma’s development through funding the government, large-scale developments and parallel international aid programs that undermine the world of civil society. Future efforts of civil society will include; contributing to a peaceful resolution to conflict, changing the nature of gender norms to make it easier for women to act as leaders without discrimination, and continuing the struggle to end human rights abuse that continues with impunity. The work of civil society in Burma is only just beginning.

What can you do to #makeithappen?

We have a responsibility not to just read and be in awe of impressive women and agents of civil society who devote their lives to create a better future. Now is the time to contribute to their efforts. Here’s a list of suggestions:

  • Share this blog to increase awareness of human rights abuse in Burma and the inspirational work of women in civil society.
  • Write to your MP explaining the ongoing situation in Burma and asking them to put pressure on the Burmese government to end impunity and support all people in Burma – you could point them to a particular report to read.
  • Fundraise and raise awareness of these issues by holding an event with colleagues, associates or in your place of education.
  • Fundraise or donate to SWAN or Doh Say through HART.

Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.

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