Dignity in the Shadow of Oppression: The abuse and agency of Karen women under militarisation


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Dignity in the Shadow of Oppression: The abuse and agency of Karen women under militarisation

Published date:
Wednesday, November 22, 2006

As the State Peace and Development council continues with its aggressive campaign to expand military control over all areas of Karen State, local villagers confront brutal and systematic abuses perpetrated by the junta's armed forces. In light of such abuse, external representations of Karen women have fallen back on stereotypes of women in armed conflict which depict nothing but their helplessness and vulnerability. The findings of this report, however, demonstrate that such representations can be both inaccurate and harmful. They miss the many ways in which Karen women are actively responding to abuse and resisting militarisation, and furthermore undermine local women's attempts to determine for themselves how they, their families and communities are to develop. Such portrayals foster external perceptions and intervention that neglect local concerns and the strategies that these women are already employing to claim their rights. In this report, KHRG examines the patterns of military abuses against Karen women, the many ways these have affected their lives, the manner in which these women have responded to abuse and the ways that this relationship between military abuse and women's agency has led to changes in the roles of women in Karen society.

Introduction and Executive Summary

With increased media coverage and international attention on the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC)'s militarisation of Karen State, there is a risk that those suffering under the regime's daily abuses will come to be seen solely in the light of their vulnerability. Such perspectives suggest any amelioration of the situation for local peoples can only arise from sources external to themselves. Outside actors are therefore the ones who must decide what responses are most appropriate. In this way rural villagers, who form the vast majority of the Karen population, are denied a voice in any relevant decision-making process, thereby perpetuating the denial of their rights. Such approaches are particularly problematic when attempting to understand the situation of abuse faced by women in Karen society. External representations of these individuals tend towards the stereotype of 'women in armed conflict' which depicts them as the superlative victims, lacking both the knowledge and means to address their own needs. Such portrayals reject the fact that victims of abuse are also agents of change. While they are constrained by military abuse, Karen women have also been actively working to mitigate the harmful effects of militarisation and thereby maintain their dignity in the face of systematic oppression. Their responses go well beyond 'coping strategies' by including evasion, deliberate non-compliance and other elements of resistance used to retain control over their own lives. Through these actions, these women have reshaped their roles and relations within society and influenced the prevailing balance of power.

Until now, many of the human rights reports concerning women have focused narrowly on rape and sexual abuse; while these are relevant, this report will attempt to broaden the issue to look at how women are affected by a much wider spectrum of human rights abuses, how these act in combination to change their lives, and how they respond and resist. This is more consistent with villagers' own articulation of their stories, in which specific incidents tend to be less important than how different factors - for example forced labour, movement restrictions, rape, and theft of livestock - combine in their lives to create hardship, undermine communities, and force people into displacement, wilful noncompliance, and other responses aimed at reclaiming their rights.

Regular military abuses, their effects on villagers and the manner in which these villagers respond are all influenced by local understandings of gender, as a social and cultural construction of roles shaping the relations between men and women. Any understanding of the situation of Karen women living under systematic military oppression would be incomplete without an awareness of the traditional perceptions of, and expectations on, women and men. In this context, women's roles have traditionally carried much respect within the community. Divisions of labour, although not always rigid, have led them to take most of the responsibility for intra-household work such as child-rearing, processing and preparing food, weaving, tending the household garden, raising small livestock and managing the family's finances. Beyond the household, they do most of the foraging for forest products, and spend a great deal of time working in the fields alongside male family members, particularly at labour intensive times in the crop cycle. Whether in the home or in farm fields, women's work has not traditionally required them to travel far beyond their native villages. Similarly, marriages typically occur between those from the same or adjacent villages. They thus retain a strong connection to the land of their birth. While women have always occupied informal leadership roles with the household, formal leadership positions, such as that of village head, have traditionally been occupied by men.

Within this framework of traditional gender roles, certain military abuses such as rape and sexual violence, detention and ransoming of women on accusations of being wives or daughters of 'rebels', and forced organisation into military-controlled women's associations, have specifically targeted women. Meanwhile, men have been specifically targeted for heavy forced labour such as portering, and for random torture on false accusations as 'insurgents' for purposes of extortion. To escape such abuses many men leave their villages when SPDC forces are around, leaving women to protect the children, the elderly and the household belongings and to confront the soldiers entering their villages. Women then face an even greater risk of being taken for forced labour in lieu of men, or accused that their missing husbands and sons are 'insurgents' and being detained and tortured as a means of pressuring their missing men to 'surrender'.

For the majority of abuses however, soldiers have not particularly selected out either women or men to be recipients of abuse. For example, attacks on villages leading to displacement, killing on sight of those in hiding, most forms of forced labour, restrictions on health care and education, and various forms of deprivation of livelihood such as extortion, looting, land confiscation and destruction of property have targeted women and men indiscriminately. The difference in gender roles, however, has caused these abuses to affect women and men differently. Deprivation of livelihood has undermined women's ability to continue caring for children and managing the family's welfare within the household, and has forced women to take on greater roles in family income generation and staple crop production to supplement the shortfall created by military looting, extortion and forced labour. Food shortages and difficulties accessing medicine and medical treatment brought on by SPDC blockades on trade and travel have also challenged women's role of caregiver for their family. As men are already engaged primarily in subsistence agriculture, it is women who have been most burdened by the additional workload needed to support their families where military abuses have undermined their family's livelihood. Some of this involves extremely risky labour, such as increased foraging for forest foods in areas densely polluted with landmines. Demands on women's labour are even more severe where male family members have been killed or are absent due to flight or involvement in the armed opposition. These situations require women to compensate for the lost labour of an absent husband or father. Overall, the prevailing human rights situation has at least doubled the workload of most women, while also forcing them into greater mobility and forms of work which are physically dangerous. This takes a toll on women both directly, as when women are raped, shot, or maimed by landmines, and indirectly, as the increased workload and worsening living conditions combine to erode women's health and deprive girls of education.

While gender roles have shaped the character of military abuse and its effects on villagers, the fluidity of such roles means that individuals can play an active part in redefining them. Women in Karen society have responded to abuse in ways which have challenged traditional gender roles. As there is a perception that men are more harshly treated by soldiers, women have increasingly taken on the position of village head, in which they serve as intermediaries between the village and military. In this role they have successfully exploited traditional norms of respect for women in order to negotiate reduced military demands on their communities. As military extortion and restrictions have severely hindered the provision of education and medical care at the village level, women have increasingly taken on roles as teachers, medics and midwives, both as means to support their own families and as a service to their communities. Given the vagaries of life for those who attempt to persevere under the SPDC's economic restrictions, blockades of trade routes, destruction of crops and food stores, extortion and systematic exploitation, women have broadened the family's subsistence base by adding cash crops that can be grown in hidden forest clearings, or by getting involved in small-scale trading. They have also developed new forms of inter-community mutual support. Covert 'jungle markets', for example, allow women living in hiding and those in military-controlled communities to exchange goods and thereby evade SPDC restrictions on trade. In their roles as caregivers in the family, women fleeing attacks on their homes have had the primary responsibility to manage their family's flight and relocation into the forest. They have coordinated the rapid packing and evacuation of the family's food, belongings and children, constructed temporary shelters, foraged for food, organised education for the children in displaced communities and worked as midwives, medics and teachers in these situations as well. As economic opportunities for villagers have collapsed under severe SPDC restrictions on movement, trade and agriculture, some women (particularly unmarried women) have chosen to migrate outside of their immediate communities to towns or across international borders in search of employment to support their immediate and extended families. Through their employment of various response strategies, Karen women have proven themselves to be adaptable and highly competent in confronting the challenges of life under military abuse and countering military efforts to control and abuse them. In the process they have transcended many traditional restrictions on women and thereby altered local understandings of appropriate gender roles.

While these local responses to abuse are the most relevant factors in determining how to support Karen women, numerous international legal conventions, resolutions and declarations are nonetheless relevant to the discussion. For example, the 1930 forced labour convention (Convention 29) of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), to which Burma is a State Party, explicitly prohibits the employment of women in forced labour. The 1997 Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) requires States Parties, which include Burma, to eradicate government policies that hinder the development and advancement of women, and includes explicit reference to the particular role of rural women in non-monetised sections of the economy. United Nations (UN) Security Council resolutions 1325 and 1674 call on all states to prevent sexual and other violence against women in situations of armed conflict. The 1974 UN General Assembly Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflict provides yet another affirmation of the rights of women in situations of armed conflict. While the SPDC regularly violates the requirements of these conventions, resolutions and declaration, the legal framework nevertheless ensures that the struggle of Karen women for dignity in the face of systematic military oppression is backed by international recognition of their right to resist abuse.

What becomes evident through this examination of the abuse and agency of Karen women is that these individuals are not the passive recipients of abuse that they are so often made out to be. Rather, by responding to abuse and working to claim their rights, these women are making political statements about society and the way in which it should change. This active engagement with the structures of power is missed when they are portrayed as helpless victims whose situation is solely determined by factors external to themselves, such as the abuses of military forces or the provision of international aid. The full achievement of their rights therefore requires that their agency be recognised and their voices included in any relevant decision-making process.

For the PDF versions of the full report,  can be found in the left-hand panel of this page in English and Karen.