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Going beyond the kitchen: empowering women and changing mindsets in Myanmar

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Mi Kun Chan Non, Vice Chair of the Mon Women’s Organization, argues that women need to be fully involved in Myanmar’s peace process and explains her work to create a new generation of women leaders.


The Mon people are one of the largest ethnic minorities in Myanmar and live mostly in Mon State in the southeast of the country. Among the oldest inhabitants of southeast Asia, the Mon originally settled in the area some 1,200 years ago. Successive Mon kingdoms played an influential role in shaping the culture and society of the region, particularly through spreading Buddhism to Burman and Thai civilisations.

In pursuit of autonomy, Mon nationalists have engaged in an armed struggle against the central Myanmar government since the country’s independence in 1948. The New Mon State Party (NMSP) and the Myanmar government signed a ceasefire agreement in January 2012. The NMSP and other ethnic armed groups are currently involved in peace negotiations with the government, with a view to reaching an agreement on a nationwide ceasefire and a political dialogue.

Traditionally in Myanmar, women are not decision-makers; they are not in leadership positions, even at the ground level. Although things have changed from the time when women really had a secondary status to men – many women are now involved in community-based organisations, for example – women are still not widely seen as leaders. This is why we need to empower women in the country, to tell them: “You have the ability, you have the capacity to lead.”

I work as the Vice Chair of the Mon Women’s Organization, focusing on women’s empowerment and community development programmes. We give women the information, knowledge and skills they need to become decision-makers and leaders. One of the major issues that the MWO is currently working on relates to the peace process between the ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar government. Together with other women’s groups, we want to ensure that women’s voices are heard at the peace table and in the political dialogue. Women need to be fully involved on both sides; we can’t be excluded anymore.

Women want a seat at the peace table

There are several reasons why we need to have women participating in the peace process. First, women need to be involved so that the process is inclusive. More than half the population is made up of women; without us, peace will not be sustained. The issues that women have in conflict are also not the same as those experienced by men, and women often have a greater awareness of the details of daily life in the community. Moreover, women can contribute to the process as we have a different approach to conflict resolution and social transformation.

What the MWO has been doing is to prove – especially to the male leaders – that women have the capacity to support and contribute to the process. We call for women’s participation all the time, speaking up again and again. And of course, we work collectively with other women’s organisations on this; if we work individually, we will not be heard.

Pressure from the outside is also valuable; international organisations can have a helpful role in furthering women’s participation. But from my own experience, I’ve seen that although many international NGOs and donor agencies have gender policies, they don’t always apply them in the field. That is the problem. So the international community needs to monitor what’s happening and then place pressure on the different groups to ensure that women are given the space to participate.

Changing men’s mindsets – and women’s too

Achieving gender equality is about changing mindsets. When we hold gender workshops, the men mostly think that it’s just about women’s rights. Obviously, it’s not just about women – it’s about and for men as well.

When we talk about women’s empowerment, another difficulty is women ourselves. We often don’t believe that we have the capacity to be leaders. Some women think that the ‘outside world’ is not for them; that they are meant just for the home – for looking after their families and their husbands, for cooking in the kitchen.

Some men also believe this, that to be a good woman you need to prove that you can cook and look after your family well. So we need to change the mindsets of both women and men. To do this you need to get some model women leaders, those who really ‘do’ in the community.

Being a feminist in Myanmar: fighting for the important things

Of course, when you’re a feminist and a women’s activist, you can be seen to be violating social norms, violating tradition. You cannot say that you don't care about this; you have to care, because you want people to respect you and to value you as a feminist and women’s activist. So you need to strike a balance – to be respectful of tradition while also thinking about which aspects of the traditional practices you want to overcome. We don’t want to have more enemies than allies.

For example, traditionally, women cannot hang their longyi on the top of a clothesline, or at the front of a house. It comes from the thinking that women’s wear has a lower status than men’s, so we can’t dry our clothes on the same level as a man’s. Similarly, there are special places in temples and monasteries that women are not allowed to enter.

We don't fight against these small things; we focus on the bigger things, like fighting to improve the skills and abilities of women and enabling them to become leaders. The status of women has changed a lot in Myanmar during my life, but there is still much to do.

Mi Kun Chan Non is Vice Chair of the Mon Women’s Organization. She is based in Mawlamyine, the capital of Mon State, Myanmar. She has just been awarded an N-Peace Award for “working tirelessly to build a voice and fight for the rights of minority women.”

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation

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