In a country where gender roles are very traditional and violence against women and girls is common, it takes bravery to dedicate your life to working for gender equality.
36 year old Kaythi Myint Thein is deputy director of the Gender Equality Network in Myanmar. The Gender Equality Network (GEN) is a group of over 100 organisations in Myanmar that are active on women’s rights.
Kaythi has been working with GEN for 5 years. Although her background isn’t in women’s leadership, her work with GEN has transformed her life, and she says she loves working with GEN and feels she is ‘working from the heart’.
The aim of GEN is to be a network and a platform to advance women’s rights. Kaythi says that GEN ‘collect voices from members and transfer those voices into policy change’. In order to influence government policy, GEN needs to show evidence to policy makers, so Kaythi has spent much of her time conducting research.
According to Kaythi, the organisations’ greatest success has been building up the network to include over one hundred organisations active on women’s rights. The collective action of the network has put significant pressure on the government, which has resulted in the introduction of a governmental plan on women’s equality, and the development of draft legislation to protect women from violence.
The introduction of a bill on prevention of violence against women is a significant milestone. If passed, it will bring in important protections for women affected by violence. However, it is still in draft form, and there are worries that the final law may be watered down.
GEN has played an important role in advising lawmakers on the drafting of the law. Kaythi says the current draft of the law contains about ‘60% of the provisions they would like to see’ including provisions on domestic violence, consent, incest and stalking. However, they would like to see the definition of rape to explicitly include marital rape, and for the law to cover sexual violence in Myanmar’s armed conflicts.
There are still very few women in leadership and political positions in Myanmar. In the 2015 general election, only just over 10% of parliamentarians elected were female.
Much work needs to be done at the community level, where women’s roles are perceived to be largely in household work and raising the family, rather than in leading their communities. Kaythi says that women in communities also need to develop skills. They should be provided the opportunity to have leadership training to grow their confidence and public speaking skills.
Political parties also need to step up, as many don’t accept the principles of gender equality. Competition for candidate positions often means there is opposition to the idea of gender quotas for candidates.
When asked whether things are getting better in Myanmar for women, Kaythi is cautiously optimistic. She says there is no doubt that there has been progress, and that the government has begun to implement the National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women. The government has also started to act on international recommendations regarding implementing the Convention of the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
However challenges remain, and the government is slow to act. Women’s equality is not the highest priority of the Myanmar government, and there is backlash against civil society groups like GEN for standing up and having a voice.
For Kaythi, she stays motivated to work for gender equality in her country. She draws her strength to keep campaigning for equality from the courageous women who have inspired her in her life. She mentions May Sabe Phyu, the director of GEN who has ‘strength and courage but can also be emotional and cry’. Also Daw Nyu Nyu Thein is another women leader who inspires her because she came from a lower income background. Such strong women inspire Kaythi to keep working for gender equality.
Read more about the strong women that Trócaire is supporting across the world, in our new report "Against the Odds: Women Leading the Struggle for Global Justice".