After returning to Myanmar, I have been eagerly looking for ways to connect with other women activists and organizations advancing the rights of women. One opportunity I had was to participate in the National Women’s Dialogue: Peace, Security, and Development in Myanmar. The conference brought together women’s organizations to discuss the “National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women (2013-2022)”. But the highlight for me was to meet Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee and watch the film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”. It was inspiring, motivating and showed how grassroots activism can change history. It was a remarkable story of the courageous Liberian women who came together to end a civil war and bring peace to their country.
Today I want to tell the story of a remarkable woman in Burma who is changing the lives of women in her community. Her name is Van Liza. She founded an organization called “Women for the World” also known as “Pyo Mei Eain”. The aim of this organization is to create a democratic society and to promote the role of girls and women. This organization was founded in 2004 and is working to provide girls with education, including critical thinking and women’s empowerment. In 2007 after Cyclone Nargis caused severe devastation mainly in the Delta region of Myanmar, the organization started its intervention to promote community development, and address gender and human rights issues within the community.
At that time, human rights advocacy was very restricted and access to educational books and the internet was limited. But this could not hinder her from chasing her dream. She always looked for a way to make her dreams come true. She started to provide youth with trainings and established a micro-credit scheme as a tool to break down the cycle of poverty. Through her work, she found out that women with low income are the ones who are more prone to experience violence and abuse with the consequence of both physical and psychological trauma. Since then, she strived to amplify the voices of these women who are being marginalized and create initiatives to particularly help the women.
The micro-credit scheme was a life-changing opportunity for many of the women. They became more empowered: they gained leadership skills and they became aware of their rights to choose and vote for their leader. Most of the women of this scheme are uneducated but they are eager to save money and actively participate in the leadership program. But most importantly, it has given them an opportunity to resolve their own problems.
Van Liza believes that without women’s participation, peace and prosperity in these communities will not come. In the peace process, women should play an active role especially those who are marginalized and vulnerable. To make this happen, government institutions and civil society organizations should create more opportunities and spaces for women to realize their potential and assert their voices. In this way, they will become major actors and contributors in the peace process.
Van Liza had some good advice for me: if I would like to serve my community, I need to commit to learning not only from the books but also from the communities that I work for. She told me how important it is to build coalitions among grassroots organization, INGOs, local NGOS and the international community. Together, we are able to strengthen the capacity and resilience of these women and girls.
Su Thet San was one of the Nobel Women’s Initiative Sister-to-Sister Mentorship Program participants in 2013. She has just returned home after spending six weeks in Ottawa with our team and two other young women’s rights activists from Guatemala and Liberia.