Since the aftermath of the military’s attempted coup, women in Myanmar from all walks of life – across class, ethnic and religious lines – have been playing a pivotal role in the Spring Revolution. They joined in organizing and leading the nationwide non-violent protests and strikes, the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), and also resistance armed forces, as they continue to strive for a federal democratic Myanmar that is gender inclusive and affirms gender equality, as well as an end to all forms of discrimination and violence against women.
Despite being targeted and under constant attacks by the illegal military junta, women have courageously demonstrated their strength and commitment to bring about systemic change in the country. On the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and the International Women Human Rights Defenders Day, we are reminded once again that ensuring justice for sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), gender equality, women’s political participation at all levels of decision-making, and an end to the decades-long deeply rooted culture of misogyny and the Myanmar military’s impunity are the fabrics of building a federal democratic Myanmar.
Throughout the country’s modern history, widespread and systematic SGBV has remained one of the Myanmar military’s hallmark weapons of war to dehumanize and terrorize ethnic and religious minorities, in particular women and girls. Since the 2021 failed coup, these crimes have drastically increased as the junta has regularly targeted women with sexual harassment, rape, gang rape, abduction, sexual slavery, torture, and murder – as an integral part of its nationwide terror campaign against the people of Myanmar. One example among too many similar tragedies happened in Sagaing Region’s Wetlet Township in August 2023, where junta troops gang-raped and then brutally killed Shwe Mann Thu, a 20-year-old pregnant woman, together with three other civilians. This counts among at least 664 women who have been slain over the past 34 months since the coup attempt.
Furthermore, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, as of 1 December 2023, the junta has arrested at least 5,104 women. Women and LGBTQI+ political prisoners suffer cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment at the hands of the junta and its security forces. Cases of sexual harassment and assault against women during interrogation and denial of medical treatment, including for life threatening health conditions, remain rampant. Ill-treatment and harsh punishment are also frequent in Myanmar’s junta-controlled jails. In Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison, for example, junta personnel denied 70 women political prisoners drinking water in response to them staging a protest after an inmate suffering from a miscarriage was denied medical treatment. Burmese Women’s Union reported that “an average of 15 women per month are being arrested arbitrarily.”
Despite the horrendous trauma they have endured, women stand firmly and courageously at the forefront of the people’s Spring Revolution and actively participate in nation-building for Myanmar’s federal future.
Many local women have established grassroots frontline humanitarian, health and education groups to effectively respond to the unprecedented humanitarian crisis caused by the junta. Often, they represent the only actors able to reach and directly assist communities in Myanmar in direst needs, while operating in extremely dangerous environments and being systematically targeted by the junta. To protect themselves and their communities, many women have also taken leading positions in the armed struggle against the junta. All-women units and battalions have been established across the country, from Sagaing Region, with the all-female armed force called Myaung Women Warriors, to Karenni State, with the all-female combat unit of the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force’s Battalion 5.
Celebrating the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and the International Women Human Rights Defenders Day, women organizations reaffirmed the imperative to build the future Myanmar that is free from all forms of discrimination and violence against women, as echoed in the latest statement of Karen Women’s Organization (KWO). Multiple initiatives were held across Myanmar to raise awareness of local communities on gender-based violence (GBV). In Karenni State, for example, the Karenni National Women’s Organization, while celebrating the 19th anniversary of its Safe House, organized activities and open discussions for hundreds of internally displaced persons to increase knowledge of GBV, the services available to women victims and survivors of GBV, and the impacts of the Myanmar military’s atrocities on women. Underlining decades-long challenges women from minority communities continue to face, Women’s Peace Network stated, “Access to justice continues to be denied to ethnic and religious minority women, who, for generations, have been subjected to the military’s sexual violence in its attempts to subjugate them and destroy their identity.”
In such a critical time for the country, women’s participation in decision-making is vital to support gender-responsive transitional justice policy and implementation plan, and the formation of a truly inclusive society for all. The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and the International Women Human Rights Defenders Day remind us not only of the Myanmar military’s heinous crimes against women for decades, but also the tremendous contribution of Myanmar’s women in the Spring Revolution and for the future of their nation. This is the time the international community must support these brave and courageous women of Myanmar with concrete actions, and complement their immense efforts in nation-building and ending military tyranny: hold all perpetrators to account through prosecution at the International Criminal Court or an ad hoc tribunal and actualize justice and remedies for victims and survivors of these crimes. As clearly stated by KWO, “[B]y educating ourselves, rejecting violence, advocating for laws, taking action against perpetrators, and supporting victims, we can work together to build a community free from violence against women.” Women organizations are taking concrete actions to transform the Myanmar’s society. It is time the international community follow their suit and support their efforts and aspirations.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
By Mekong Watch, ayus:Network of Buddhists Volunteers on International Cooperation, Friends of the Earth Japan, Japan International Volunteer Center, Network Against Japan Arms Trade, Progressive Voice
By UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar
By Athan – Freedom of Expression Activist Organization
By CSO Working Group on Independent National Human Rights Institution (Burma/Myanmar), the Asian NGO Network on National Human Rights Institutions (ANNI)
By Shan Human Rights Foundation
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”