An article in the Women In The World section of the New York Times website this week makes a disturbing observation.
It shows a photograph of a meeting in Paris on December 14 of ministers who had gathered to discuss the crisis in Syria. In attendance were US Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterparts from France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Qatar, and Turkey.
The article points to the fact that, while there are women in the background, there is not one woman seated at the discussion table, “because not one of the above countries has a woman foreign minister”.
The article continues, “Such an abject lack of gender parity at high-stakes talks like these is shameful.”
Amid continued debate over how peace negotiations in Myanmar should progress under the forthcoming government, some of the issues raised in the piece are particularly relevant to this country.
The article cites a 2012 report by UN Women on womens participation in peace negotiations, which pointed out that in a sample of 31 major peace processes between 1992 and 2011 “only 4 percent of signatories, 2.4pc of chief mediators, 3.7pc of witnesses and 9pc of negotiators are women”.
Myanmar is clearly not the only country in which women are widely excluded from the peace table.
The report highlighted that while women are under-represented in most public decision-making roles, their absence is particularly marked in peace negotiations.
Given how difficult it remains for women in this country to be nominated for senior roles in any form of governance, it is evident that special efforts will have to be made if their numbers are to be boosted in the peace process going forward.
One of the key reasons cited by current power-holders for excluding women from such key roles is women’s “lack of experience”, as well as common cultural beliefs that “Myanmar women are not confident in such settings”.
These are clearly self-fulfilling concepts that suit those who don’t want to deal with the kind of changes in power-dynamics and issues that having more women at the peace table would be likely to bring. There are more than enough forthright women in this country who have proved the tale of the “naturally shy Myanmar woman” to be nonsense.
The lack-of-experience excuse might seem more difficult to circumnavigate: How can people gain experience if their inexperience is used as a reason to exclude them from opportunities to acquire more skills?
But as highlighted in a news story last week about a new US$11.8 million project by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), Finland and Sweden to protect the rights of women and girls living in remote and conflict-affected areas of Myanmar, women do have all-too-relevant experience to share.
They might not have much experience at the peace table, but they do have very specific experiences of conflict and reasons to strive for peace.
In a statement on the initiative, Janet E Jackson, UNFPA representative for Myanmar, said, “Women and girls of childbearing age in Myanmar carry extraordinary burdens as deep poverty and gender discrimination are compounded by armed conflict and inter-communal violence.”
The program, which will focus on vulnerable women and girls in Rakhine, Kachin and northern Shan states, will provide services to women affected by a range of humanitarian issues, not just those directly related to conflict.
The initiative’s aims underscore the impact conflict has on women’s lives. As well as comprehensive reproductive healthcare, it will provide assistance, including post-rape treatment, along with counselling and support to survivors of gender-based violence.
Myanmar has 645,000 people displaced, according to UNFPA – and women forced out of their communities are particularly at risk because they lack basic reproductive health support.
Women and girls have specific needs that are often ignored during crisis, the statement noted, adding that, “In Myanmar, sexual violence in humanitarian settings has been described as ‘widespread’, ‘prevalent’, and ‘a dominant feature’.”
It also highlighted that, the UN “has reported a surge in trafficking of adolescent girls in areas of Myanmar affected by conflict”.
“During crises, women and girls have virtually no access to protection, security or justice, including legal aid,” Silja Rajander, counsellor of the diplomatic mission of Finland, said in the statement.
“Perpetrators of sexual violence ... act in an environment of impunity. Against this backdrop, access to justice and rule of law is essential to improving the safety of women and girls.”
Projects such as this which directly address these issues play a very important role in providing on-the-ground support for women and girls currently affected by conflict.
But the wider goal for the people of Myanmar must be to bring about an end to the conflicts that give rise to such abuses in the first place.
The experience of those who have suffered the impact of civil war and communal violence are as vital to the peace process as the experiences of those who have engaged in such conflicts. As Myanmar looks to the next stages of the peace process it has an opportunity to go much further in actively including women in key positions in the negotiations.
In doing so it would significantly improve the opportunity for creating a lasting peace and place the nation ahead of other countries when it comes to women’s involvement in peace negotiations – setting the scene for a new and more peaceful Myanmar in which the world can see Myanmar women speaking at the negotiating table, not just serving tea to those sitting at it.