Published in The Myanmar Times on 10 June 2013

The director of the Karen Women’s Empowerment Group explains why it’s vital to include women in the peace process and laments the barriers to equality that remain.

Susanna Hla Hla Soe in traditional Karen dress. Photo: supplied

Susanna Hla Hla Soe in traditional Karen dress. Photo: supplied

Despite calls to involve women in peace talks between the Karen National Union and the government, the director of Karen Women’s Empowerment Group (KWEG), Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe, believes that there has been no significant increase in women’s participation in 2013.

Since 2010, Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe has facilitated a signature campaign lobbying the president to involve women in the peace process as well as leading a campaign to end the world’s longest civil war, which began shortly after Myanmar gained independence from the British in 1948.

Naw Susanna told The Myanmar Times she is disappointed that aside from sideline meetings held every month, official peace talks have not taken place this year.

“Because [the talks] aren’t official, they don’t appear in the media,” she said.

She said the situation on the ground is much improved, although the calm remains fragile: “The fighting has stopped, so the people are happy. However when the government and the Karen National Union (KNU) agreed to a ceasefire [in January 2012], there were many incidents of land grabbing. So the people are very worried about the future.”

Naw Susanna said that the government gave land to an agricultural company without compensating the owners, and she is concerned that “if this issue isn’t solved, peace can turn to conflict”.

She is also concerned about the people living in nine refugee camps in Thailand, who number more than 100,000.

“When I visited the refugee camps, I saw mostly women and children living there. They told me that when they were escaping the conflict, it was easier for men to flee the area. Some women suffered from reproductive and nutrition issues, and women also have to bring all their household things with them, because when they stopped they would have to cook. So it’s very difficult for them.”

Naw Susanna said she believes these are just some of the reasons why women and children are affected the most by war, and why it is therefore critical for women to be represented during peace efforts.

In a March 2013 Myanmar Times article, Naw Susanna said that this belief is in accordance with the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), to which Myanmar is a party. However she feels that the convention lacks teeth in Myanmar, due to limited awareness of its existence.

“The government agreed to implement CEDAW, but I doubt that many government officials know about it. Perhaps only those from the Department of Social Welfare know of it – at the township and village level, nothing is known,” she said.

Along with providing emergency relief for disaster-affected communities, KWEG also provides vocational training for women, as well as microfinance loans and education for disadvantaged youths. Help is provided to women from all ethnic backgrounds.

KWEG is marking its 10th anniversary this year and is currently in the process of extending its programs. The organisation is based in Yangon but now has projects in the Delta Region and Karen State.

One of its main spheres of activity is assisting women who have suffered domestic violence.

In 2012, KWEG supported 20 victims of domestic violence, of which 15 resulted in convictions. Naw Susanna said there were 20 cases in the first five months of 2013. She said that although this may appear to show an increase in the prevalence of domestic violence, it could also be seen as an indication that more women are aware of the support provided by KWEG, and are willing to utilise it. KWEG offers free counselling and works with a lawyers’ network group, who accompany victims to file a case with the police.

“If police don’t take any action, we follow up,” she said.

Support is also provided to cover lawyers’ fees and transportation – the latter of which is particularly important to women living in the Delta area, because Naw Susanna said that transportation to the central court is often time-consuming and costly.

KWEG is also lobbying for a review of the customary law on divorce in Myanmar, and has held talks with the public and members of parliament.

“It’s a very old law, dating back to 1947,” Naw Susanna said. “It stipulates that after divorce, the man must pay the woman 100 kyat a month as child support.”

Needless to say, after decades of inflation, the amount is meager in the extreme.

“The law simply isn’t relevant today,” she said.

The double standard of divorce laws is another issue KWEG wishes to see changed.

“If a woman wants a divorce, it’s not very easy. But men can get one easily – unlike women, they don’t need evidence of adultery or abuse.”

Naw Susanna has raised human rights issues affecting women with many high-profile figures, such as the former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.

“I was very impressed by her,” she said of a meeting that took place in 2011.

“She’s a very practical leader. After talking about the situation in Karen State, when I raised the issue of the trauma women and children were suffering from, she agreed to help us provide counselling. After she went back to the United States, the US embassy in Yangon contacted me and provided funds to create a women’s centre for trauma healing.”

Naw Susanna said that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has also been a pillar of strength to KWEG. Although the leader of the National League for Democracy has been frequently criticised in the press for failing to speak out about peace efforts and the recent ethnic tensions, Naw Susanna believes this is due to political pragmatism.

“After [Daw Aung San Suu Kyi] was released from house arrest, we had a meeting and I updated her on our progress and the other women’s groups that we are trying to help. She was very encouraging and gave me many insights and suggestions. Though she never talks publicly on the peace issue, I think this is because her talk is very powerful. Whenever she talks, it’s not only in Myanmar newspapers but world newspapers. I think some of her words could cause her problems with the government. She is a politician, so she’s being practical. This is my opinion.”

Naw Susanna believes that millions of women are inspired by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – including herself. Naw Susanna was a student at Rangoon University during the ’88 uprising and subsequently spent four months hiding in the jungle.

“When [Daw Aung San Suu Kyi] was under house arrest, people thought, ‘This is the leader’s life and it’s hard.’ So we risked our lives for democracy. Sometimes my parents complained that I didn’t give much time to the family: I said Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is still living far away from her children. And I kept doing what I was doing.”