Amid the long history of women’s and gender justice struggles and movements, we are now at a crucial junction and opportune moment for liberation through self-determination by pushing the gender justice agenda out of the margins and asserting its place in local, national, regional and global policy arenas. Women and gender diverse peoples are serving at the frontlines, and the impacts of the crises on them are a stark reality of ongoing injustices and inequality.
In celebration of Women’s Month, Reality of Aid – Asia Pacific and Aid/Watch Australia dedicate Aid Talks #3 on how women and gender diverse peoples from the Asia Pacific region embrace, advocate and are ushering in feminist, just and rights-based solutions for lives, livelihoods and development justice.
Gender Justice Now: Moving Beyond Neoliberalism, Capitalism and Patriarchy held on March 18, 2021, featured Naw Wahkushee, Director of the Karen Peace Support Network (KPSN) in Myanmar, and Christina Lalremdik, Coordinator at the Centre for Research and Advocacy in Manipur, India. The webinar was facilitated by Mara Bonacci of Aid/Watch Australia.
Wahkushee and Christina briefly shared the political and socio-economic contexts in Burma and Manipur today before zeroing in to their experiences in resisting the oppressive structures in place that infringe on their rights, and practices in advocating for a feminist, just and rights-based approach to women’s development in their communities.
On land and livelihood
“Gender Justice”, as defined by the speakers, broadly means the attainment of equal status across all genders. Gender justice entails freedom from all systems that exploit women and gender diverse peoples, moving beyond neoliberalism, capitalism and patriarchy. Moreover, upholding gender justice involves including women and gender diverse peoples in the decision-making processes toward people-centered sustainable development.
One aspect of gender justice is ensuring that women are able to provide the basic needs of their families and themselves. Christina shares that in Manipur, women have the role of producing and distributing food. Women sell their produce and handlooms in the Women’s Market, providing sustenance for their communities. In most cases, women vendors are also the sole breadwinner of their families. Due to the lockdown, however, Women’s Markets across Manipur have closed, hindering women to sustain their basic needs. Food insecurity then became a bigger issue for the Manipuri. Despite the relief distribution by the government, families had to survive on only one meal a day.
Women in Manipur also have to deal with the loss of their lands. Without their consent, the government, colluding with big corporations, have been transforming their lands to ecological zones or into dams, roads and railways. Indigenous Peoples in Manipur, including women who were earning income from collecting sandstones, have been unable to manage their forest and land, losing their home and source of livelihood to the government and corporations.
Landgrabbing, however, has not only led to homelessness, but also to domestic violence and sexual assault. “Women whose livelihoods have been destroyed had to look for an alternative means of livelihood and in this process, they put themselves vulnerable to exploitation,” Christina highlights. During the lockdown alone, there were 90 recorded cases of violence against women in Manipur.
For the Karens, on the other hand, Wakhushee shares that women have the power to own and manage lands. They also have their own government mechanism and land management system with gender equality representatives. However, these ancestral lands are also targeted by the military, as international finance institutions and the private sector eye these for infrastructure “development” projects.
The loss of Indigenous Peoples’ lands in Myanmar has led to the growing number of internally displaced persons and refugees across the country. These people have been continually abused and harassed by the military, forcing them to stay in camps. For the last ten years, indigenous women had no freedom to have their own homes and livelihood. Wahkushee asserts, “Our vision is [that] in a federal Burma, all the communities have gender equality, the protection and promotion of Indigenous Peoples’ rights, human rights and justice.”
On conflict and fragility
“It is not easy to talk about gender equality, gender justice, when conflict and war is going on in your areas,” Wahkushee reiterates. In the ethnic areas, military violence has been taking place for decades. Sexual violence has also been prevalent with the military using women as a weapon of war.
With the coup in place, the Burmese military pursued violent crackdowns of activists not only in ethnic areas, but also in the cities. Women and children were arrested, detained and killed during the nationwide protests.
However, indigenous women in Burma have been and continue to be at the forefront in conflict situations. Women take on leadership positions as village chiefs, negotiating with armed groups to protect their villages. While these women have taken up the responsibility of securing their communities during critical times, they are often being left out of relevant peace-making and decision-making processes in both national and global levels.
On COVID-19 response
The situation of gender diverse peoples have also worsened in Manipur due to the pandemic. Manipuri transwomen who returned home were discriminated against, and were banned from entering their localities. This discrimination, along with the challenges in coping from the pandemic, has led to mental health issues among gender diverse peoples.
Despite these, women and gender diverse peoples have been leading their communities’ pandemic responses. With their understanding of the various issues their communities face, they have been able to provide and advocate for a holistic response to the pandemic.
In Manipur, indigenous communities addressed food insecurity by pooling and sending agricultural products to the villages. Moreover, together with other civil society organizations, women’s organizations have distributed food and sanitary napkins to women in rural areas.
Through these initiatives, the local government is slowly recognizing and accepting gender diverse communities. In fact, the government has set-up two quarantine centers to cater to the transgender community. Other marginalized groups, such as the widowed and people with HIV/AIDS, were also given assistance during this time.
All of these efforts were made possible by the solidarity of women and gender diverse peoples. While they come from different ethnic groups and backgrounds, they are working together to fight the injustices, inequalities and crises they face. “It is time that women’s organizations in local settings and across the world join hands and extend our solidarity to each other for the quest of justice,” according to Christina.
Women’s organizations have been active in advocating for gender justice from national to global policy arenas. Women have been promoting awareness and empowering each other to advocate for their rights. Christina stresses, “We must also train and encourage our fellow women to stand up for their rights, enabling them to break away from the stereotypical mindset patriarchy had ingrained within us.”
Women organizations continuously monitor and negotiate with policy leaders to include women in decision-making processes and formulate laws that address women’s issues. Women’s organizations also urge donors and their partners for the inclusion of gender policies in their projects. In influencing donors, policymakers and other development actors, Wahkushee emphasizes, “We should be committed in what we believe and also in what we are fighting and working for.”
To further popularize and assert gender justice, it is important for women and gender diverse peoples from all walks of life and from all corners of the world to stand in solidarity with each other and to collectively fight for a rights-based, people-centered sustainable development.
“We need to demand freedom from the systems that exploit women, we need to deal with patriarchy, racism, colonialism, development aggression, capitalism, and they have to be all tackled together as they are all connected”, according to Mara as she wrapped up the webinar. To put it simply, we will not be able to achieve genuine justice without championing gender justice.