YANGON — How does Myanmar stack up with other countries in terms of women’s rights? To get a sense, The Irrawaddy’s Zarni Mann and Samantha Michaels sat down with Melanne Verveer, the former US ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, during her visit to Yangon last month. In her work as ambassador from 2009-13, she coordinated foreign policy issues and activities related to the advancement of women around the world. Before that, she served as chief of staff to then-First Lady Hillary Clinton during the Bill Clinton administration, and today she directs the Washington-based Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, which looks at women’s participation in resolving conflicts and shaping political transitions.
Question: What role do you believe women should have in Myanmar’s peace process?
Answer: This country will not be able to achieve the kind of future that everybody wants for it, especially what the people here want for themselves, unless ethnic hostilities are addressed. The ceasefires, the work of the Myanmar Peace Center and other processes in place have really kept out the women in terms of their representation from ethnic communities.… The women are among the most affected. They know what’s happening on the ground, whether it’s in Shan State, Kachin State or [Kayin] State, wherever. They have the expertise and the knowledge of what needs to be part of the discussion, and if they’re not part of the discussion the real issues that need to be addressed will not get addressed.
Q: How would you compare the women’s struggle in Myanmar with the women’s struggle in the United States?
A: It’s very hard to compare because the differences are so great in many ways—customs wise, history wise. Women here have been isolated for 30 years, this country has been isolated. In my country, if you look at the corporate sector in the United States, you will still find many women going into the sector and being stuck, not getting promoted. So it [discrimination] is manifested in different ways, but there are still many barriers.
Q: What is the hardest barrier?
A: The hardest barrier is the mindsets. I’ll tell you a quick story: There was a woman in Afghanistan who was the first female mayor in the country. She was a widow with children, and the men asked, “What can she do? This is not the job for a woman!” She did such an extraordinary job that they are now her biggest supporters, but they call her Mr. Mayor because they cannot believe a woman could be such a good mayor. Breaking these stereotypes and modeling a different kind of responsible leadership is what we need more of … The more women get into these kinds of positions, the more they can break those barriers.
Q: More globally, how have other countries tried to empower women?
A: South Africa came out of apartheid, Rwanda experienced a terrible genocide and Liberia had a civil war that went on a long time. In all those places, women were instrumental in creating what came out of the conflict and influencing their constitutions. There were quotas in South Africa and Rwanda. Today Rwanda has larger numbers of women in Parliament than any place in the world. Who would have thought that? You have to use mechanisms that present themselves as you’re going through these transitions—amending constitutions or making decisions about what’s going to happen in ethnic areas—to enable women to be in decision-making positions.
I am tremendously impressed by the women here in Myanmar. So many women are rolling up their sleeves and working hard to create the conditions that will enable not just women to succeed, but the country to succeed, and all the people to succeed.
Q: Many girls in Myanmar are forced to drop out of school so they can work, and parents don’t want to invest in their education. What are your thoughts about this?
A: [Former] Secretary [of State] Clinton always used to say that talent is everywhere but opportunity is not. Research shows that the most effective investment in a developing country is the education of a girl. When you educate the girl, you educate her family, you educate a community. In her first job, her income will be higher, she will provide better nutrition to her children—it has this widespread capacity to really lift up her and the community.
Q: Whose job is it to ensure that women are integrated into the Myanmar peace process?
A: There’s an old saying in Indonesia that when they make pancakes they need heat at the top and heat at the bottom. That’s what we need here. We need political will at the top, a recognition that women need to have this role and that it’s critically important for the country. And we need heat at the bottom to ensure that the capacity of all the actors engaged—the many NGOs, people struggling at the grassroots level, people still dealing with violence—are able to organize in a way that begins to move things forward.
Many countries—France, the United States, many European countries—have in our own governments adopted national action plans on women, peace and security. That means that in our bilateral efforts with another government we commit to saying that we want to support the women’s perspective in peacemaking. We’ve committed to that, and so I think we need to bring more of that to bear. I was talking about this with Ambassador [Derek] Mitchell, who is trying to do what he can, representing the United States policy view, that is encouraging of greater efforts to support women through development in the [Myanmar] ethnic areas.
Q: We’re talking a lot about empowering women, but what about men? Where do they fit in?
A: When you raise up women, you don’t put down men. You raise up both. A bird can’t fly with one wing. And it’s the two wings that are going to enable Myanmar to fly.
This Q&A first appeared as part of the cover story in the January 2014 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine. Coverage of the Women’s Forum Myanmar was supported in part by the French Embassy in Yangon.