May Sabe Phyu @ L. Hkawn Htoi
May Sabe Phyu is a passionate and committed advocate for women’s rights and gender equality in Myanmar. She works actively in the areas of the prevention of violence against women, law reform and women’s engagement to bring peace to the country. Her determination in the face of adversity – political opposition, widely held and rigid views about women’s roles, and personal risk – inspire others to push for government policy changes and to join collective actions to recognise and realise women’s right to live in peace.
May Sabe Phyu, also known as Phyu Phyu, and by her Kachin name – Labya Hkawn Htoi, was born in Yangon on 5 August 1976. Her Kachin mother and Burmese father have four girls, of which May Sabe Phyu is the eldest. She and her husband have three children – two daughters and a son – 18, 16 and 12 years old.
Phyu Phyu has a Bachelor of Science (Mathematics) degree from the University of Distance Education, Yangon, and a Masters degree in Gender and Development Studies from Thailand’s Asian Institute of Technology, where her thesis explored the gendered health impacts of the widely opposed Myitsone Dam construction in Kachin State, Myanmar. May Sabe Phyu has worked with UNDP as a Health Education Specialist, and with MSF-Holland in a variety of roles, including as a Health Education Supervisor and as Team Leader of the Counseling Program of HIV/AIDS Care and Support for the people living with HIV/AIDS.
As Director of the Gender Equality Network, May Sabe Phyu carries out broad and high level advocacy on women’s rights and gender equality issues, and oversees the implementation of the network’s strategic initiatives to promote equitable national policy. One example being technical support given to the Government to develop the National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women 2013 – 2022 (NSPAW). May Sabe Phyu has played a major role in taking the network to a new stage of high-impact, evidence-based advocacy through the production of actionable research.
Phyu Phyu has been instrumental in the network’s development of two ground breaking research projects: a qualitative research study on violence against women; and analysis of gender-based social practices and cultural norms within the Myanmar context. The completion of Behind the Silence: Violence Against Women and their Resilience marks a major step in advancing awareness of and action towards ending violence against women in Myanmar. While a small number of previous reports have covered this issue, this study is one of the first to systematically examine incidents of violence against women in the general population and to provide analysis on the different types of violence, its consequences, causes, and women’s coping strategies. A second pioneering and soon-to-be released study on social and cultural practices and their impact on gender equality, examines historical narratives and contemporary cultural and religious views of women and men in Myanmar, including cultural changes and ways in which norms influence attitudes and behaviour. The study describes stereotypes and perceptions of women in the economy, education, sport, health, and the media. The report suggests ways in which specific sectors and broader movements can identify and shift pervasive cultural discourse and practices that pose barriers to women’s empowerment.
Through the network, May Sabe Phyu is currently co-coordinating a law reform process with various stakeholders to draft the country’s first law on the prevention of violence against women. The draft law addresses violence against women by creating new criminal offences for a variety of types of violence, civil remedies, and a regime for implementation of the law – including education and training programs, and new justice system and dispute resolution procedures. The proposed new law covers a number of issues not currently addressed, such as marital rape, incest, stalking, technology-related violence against women and the establishment of protection orders.
Phyu Phyu has also played a leading role in opposing the highly controversial draft Protection of Race and Religion Bills, which if approved, will have major implications for women’s rights in Myanmar. The proposed bills restrict the right of Buddhist women to marry a partner of a different religion, and pose serious restrictions on women’s right to control their own bodies and fertility. The proposed bills infringe upon freedom of religion and specifically target minority groups. Serious threats to May Sabe Phyu and other female and male leaders who have spoken out against the bills reveal the hazards of engaging in work that questions the status quo, and seeks greater equality for all.
After hostilities between the Kachin Independence Organization and the Myanmar army resumed in 2012, May Sabe Phyu co-founded the Kachin Peace Network and Kachin Women Peace Network to raise awareness of the situation of internally displaced persons (IDPs). She advocates for inter-ethnic trust-building and women’s involvement in the peace process to resolve this civil conflict. As the co-coordinator of both organizations, she organized the first public event to raise IDP issues in the mainstream media and has conducted media exposure trips to IDP camps. Following a peaceful demonstration calling for an end to civil war in Yangon, where freedom of association is still restricted, May Sabe Phyu was charged along with a co-organizer. Over the next 14 months, they made 120 appearances in six courts, ultimately paying 20,000 kyat (approximately US$20) fines in two courts, with charges dismissed under a presidential amnesty.
May Sabe Phyu has tremendous energy and capacity, and along with hardworking and committed colleagues in the civil society, women’s and gender movements, achievements and contributions are making a real difference to progressing long term, systematic and sustainable change in a country long isolated and in need of reform and development. While an enormous amount remains to be achieved, her contributions have been outstanding, and she remains a brave and humble woman, steadfast in her commitment to continue the momentum.
 The Gender Equality Network (GEN) is a growing inter-agency network of national and international NGOs, civil society networks and technical resource persons working to promote women’s rights and gender equality in Myanmar. Link to GEN documents – https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0B_fYk-UPjaJ3T081RjFlMVMwODA&usp=sharing
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