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Day 6: Burma beyond the Facade

30 November 2012

For millions of Burma’s women, especially women of ethnic and religious minorities, life has become just that much more bizarre and dangerous in the past 18 months.

Those celebrating democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s election to parliament, her international travels, and over-hyped “reforms” by the Burmese regime, seem determined to ignore the sharp spike in the number of women subjected to violence and displacement.

Inhabitants of Kachin, 2011
Inhabitants of Kachin, 2011

Violence targeting the Muslim Rohingya community in Arakan (Rakhine) state broke out in May. Within days, entire villages were burnt to the ground and at least 100,000 people displaced. Waves of violence continue to wrack the state, with hate crimes and hate speech extending beyond the Rohingya, commonly considered one of the most persecuted peoples in the world, to the rest of Burma’s Muslims.

Meanwhile, human rights violations, including sexual and gender-based violence targeting rural and minority women, continue to be perpetrated despite much-touted “peace negotiations” between the regime and ethnic armed groups.

The problem is impunity.

As they queue up for a photo opportunity with “reformist” President Thein Sein and/or democracy hero Aung Suu Kyi, officials seem to have forgotten the urgent necessity of legislative, institutional and policy reforms to halt and prevent recurrence of impunity: The 2008 constitution grants the military immunity from prosecution, now and retroactively.

An array of repressive security laws have been retained, despite criticism. New laws have been branded with kinder and gentler descriptions, but are still utilised to suppress dissent and perpetuate a culture of impunity. Institutional reform appears only to have touched the Presidential publicity machine.

Women’s voices calling for accountability have been stifled by the reluctance of states and diplomats to rock the euphoria boat. Instead of supporting grassroots women’s decades-long initiatives to build peace and overcome the legacy of militarism in Burma, projects such as the Norwegian-led Myanmar Peace Support Initiative (MPSI) have been weak in addressing the protection of women and have excluded women from the peace-building process despite their ostensible support of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325.

Women of ethnic and religious minorities are targeted with particular malice by the Tatmadaw as a way to undermine the social fabric of ethnic communities, assert control over areas rich in natural resources, and instill fear and insecurity among civilians. In Kachin State, the number of Tatmadaw battalions has increased threefold since the war broke out. In the first 12 months of the conflict, the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand (KWAT) has documented the rape or sexual assault of at least 61 women and girls in Kachin and Northern Shan States, half of whom were killed. With the perpetrators hailing from at least 10 different battalions, these incidents reflect a clear endorsement of the state.

Photo of Kachin girl at protest in front of Myanmar embassy in Malaysia, 11 Oct, 2011
Kachin girl at protest in front of Myanmar embassy in Malaysia, 11 Oct, 2011

Within an eight-day period in June 2011, amid dozens of brutalizing acts committed against women, soldiers in Je Sawn village killed a 7-year-old girl prior to gang-raping and killing her grandmother.

Over a period of three days in May 2012, 10 Burmese troops from LIB 347 and LIB 118 tortured and gang-raped a 48-year-old woman they found sheltering in a church in Chipwi Township.

There continues to be consistent and geographically widespread documentation of rape and sexual violence perpetrated by security forces, including the sexual harassment of local women at sites of major infrastructure projects.

Reform? Apparently, the judicial system didn’t get the memo. The Supreme Court recently dismissed a case and refused to hear witness testimonies concerning the enforced disappearance of a 28-year-old Kachin woman, Sumlut Roi Ja, who was arrested by government soldiers in plain sight of her husband and father-in-law while harvesting corn near her village. This top-down indifference to holding perpetrators accountable is essentially what maintains a culture where Tatmadaw soldiers can abduct, rape and kill ethnic women with virtual impunity.

The unchallenged lynching of 10 Muslim travellers in retaliation over the murder and rape of a Buddhist Rakhine woman five days after the perpetrators were arrested became the flashpoint for violence in Arakan state. Escalating violence has included further rapes, murder, arson, and torture of mainly Rohingya, including women and children.

The Burmese and Bangladeshi governments have perpetrated racism and brutality against Rohingya fleeing the violence through neglect and a refusal to protect, by blocking aid organizations and instituting a push-back policy. This has put Rohingya women and girls at the mercy of a whole host of new threats, as a result of mass displacement and a heavy military presence surrounding IDP camps and villages.

Last month, we were privileged to support the efforts of Kachin, Karen and Rohingya young women who travelled to New York City to push for a UN General Assembly resolution that is tough on impunity. We sincerely hope the UNGA has half the guts of these amazing women!

By Debbie Stothard and Nikki Aurore of Altsean-Burma,

Nikki Aurore is a research intern with Altsean-Burma based in Bangkok, Thailand. Nikki completed an LLM in International Human Rights Law from the University of Essex and wrote her thesis on human trafficking for sexual exploitation. She has previously worked on advocating women’s rights in Nepal and has researched trafficking of Roma children in the UK.

Debbie Stothard’s first encounter with WILPF in the 1980s coincided with her own conscious commitment to human rights and peace. She is the Coordinator of Altsean-Burma (, a regional network working to support human rights and democracy in Burma. She started out as a crime reporter in 1981 and went on to work as a nanny, graphic artist, policy analyst, academic, community education consultant and government adviser. Debbie is currently Deputy-Secretary-General of FIDH, the International Federation for Human Rights (

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Melissa Torres


Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani


Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo


Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

IPB Congress Barcelona

WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

Militarised masculinity

Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

WILPF has been working on challenging the prevailing notion of masculinity based on men’s physical and social superiority to, and dominance of, women in Afghanistan. It recognizes that these notions are not representative of all Afghan men, contrary to the publicly prevailing notion.

Feminist peace​

In WILPF’s view, any process towards establishing peace that has not been partly designed by women remains deficient. Beyond bringing perspectives that encapsulate the views of half of the society and unlike the men only designed processes, women’s true and meaningful participation allows the situation to improve.

In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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