Women’s participation in the peace process: the central role of Women’s Leadership

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To mark International Women’s Day, the JPF caught up with Lway Poe Ngeal, General Secretary of the Women’s league of Burma, with whom the JPF will shortly be supporting a project to amplify the voice of women in Myanmar’s peace process.

During many years of negotiations for the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, women involved in the peace process fought hard to secure the proper participation of women going forward. In the NCA they secured the principle of a “reasonable number” of women in the process. This was better defined in the framework for political dialogue which committed to make efforts to include 30 per cent of women’s participation. Today, women in the peace process are still fighting to make this percentage a reality.

A recent report [1] found that in the most recent Union Peace Conference, held in May 2017, 20 per cent of the participants were women – up from 8 per cent in the first UPC which was held in January 2016. But in important mechanisms of the peace process itself, women’s participation remains limited. In the UPDJC committees on thematic issues, for example, participation is low overall, with women making up only 8 out of 75 members. It is in these committees that important decisions affecting the future of all the women and men of Myanmar will be made. While the Social Affairs Committee has 4 out of 15 female members, the political affairs committee does not contain any (See table below).

But as Lway Poe Ngeal, General Secretary of the Women’s League of Burma argues, it’s not just about numbers. Meaningful participation of women in the peace process is about the quality of that participation. “If we focus only on 30 per cent women’s participation, we lose the point. It’s not about numbers participating, it’s about women’s leadership. We need women in the peace process who can take decisions at the negotiating table.”

She says that we are used to seeing women as victims of war, rather than leaders for peace: “During the civil war, people talked about women in terms of “women and children” – as those who were suffering from the war - not as a source of leadership.”

As in peace processes elsewhere in the world, men frequently look for reasons why women should not participate. “Some men use the feeble excuse, that we are “not qualified” to be at the table. What qualification, I want to know, what are they talking about. A degree? We have them! The ability to talk and debate. We do. We can.”

But Poe admits that it will be a “step by step” process and they will have to be patient. “As women in the peace process, the men we see say, “oh you women are very talkative. But we need to be talkative. We need to keep talking until the men start listening!”