The Kawthoolei Women's Organization
The establishment of the Kawthoolei Women's Organization (KWO) in April 1985 is described in KWO's magazine as "a victory against the BSPP [Burma Socialist Program Party] military regime, against Burmese chauvinism and against male chauvinism," indicating clearly that the Karen women's movement is inseparable from the Karen national liberation struggle.
Right at the outset of the Karen liberation movement, in 1949, the Karen leader Saw Ba U Gyi had in fact organized the establishment of a Karen women's organization, headed by his wife. Partly due to his death in 1950 and partly because of the lack of a central Karen headquarters at the time, the organization never became active. It was not until 1974 that it was decided, at a Karen National Union Congress, to reestablish the movement, a plan that was only fully realized in 1985.
Now each of the seven administrative districts in liberated Kawthoolei, stretching from the Tavoy/Mergui District in the south to Toungoo in the north, has set up branches of the women's organization with committees existing from the district down to the township and village levels. KWO's central committee is based at the Karen National Union (KNU) headquarters at Manerplaw, and KNU general Bo Mya's wife, Tharamu La Pho, heads the committee. All committee members are democratically elected, according to the rules of KWO's 21-page constitution.
The aims of KWO are listed in its constitution as follows:
1. To free Karen women from all forms of oppression and raise their living standards.
2. To raise the political and revolutionary consciousness of Karen women.
3. To be active in the Karen revolutionary movement, in accordance with KNU's policies.
4. To have equal rights with men, and to protect these rights.
Any woman over the age of 15 living in Karen territory is eligible to join KWO, regardless of race, religion, or class. The membership fee is one kyat (US 15¢), and then 50 pyas (US 8¢) per year.
The responsibilities of KWO committee members are divided into three main areas: organization, health and education, and social welfare. The constitution lists the areas in this order.
Committee members in charge of organization are responsible for propagating the ideas and aims of both KNU and KWO. In practice, this means they receive political training at headquarters from KNU organizers before returning to their respective districts and organizing their own training sessions. In the words of Saw Kaw Soe, a KNU organizing official, "We need to teach the women to participate in the revolution, and not just raise children. They should understand how they are being oppressed, and then they must join the revolution with the men."
Organizing includes publishing the annual KWO magazine (it has appeared twice so far). The magazine, half in Karen and half in Burmese, contains articles describing the aims and activities of KWO together with facts about women's achievements in other parts of the world.
Religion, interestingly, is not on KWO's ideological agenda. The Karen are often perceived as being predominantly Christian, but in fact, according to KNU officials, fewer than 10 percent of the 7 million in the Karen population are actually Christian, the rest being Buddhist or animist. Before KWO was established, Baptist women's groups had been active in local communities, but mainly in missionary work. They had, however, set a precedent for starting local women's groups; in areas where Baptist women's groups have been active, it has apparently been much easier to organize women into KWO. Prayers, however, have been kept out of KWO meetings-to "avoid misunderstandings."
In the field of health and education, the KWO committees encourage women to be active in setting up and running schools in their areas. The KNU Central Education Committee organizes the syllabus and the printing of textbooks in Karen, English, and Burmese. At present, primary through secondary schooling is being provided for more than 2,000 children in the liberated areas. However, there are shortages of teachers, and often classes are simply held in people's houses. Women are therefore encouraged to raise funds to pay the teachers and provide classroom materials.
The duties of KWO in this field also include organizing training sessions in basic health care; in domestic skills, such as cooking and sewing; and in agriculture and livestock breeding. KWO members are also expected to help preserve the "traditional moral character" of Karen women-explained as being a reference to chastity before marriage.
Obstacles and Challenges
The war situation has, according to several KNU officials, led thousands of Karen girls to compromise their "traditional moral character." Forced to flee with other villagers across the Thai border to escape the atrocities committed routinely by Burmese Army soldiers, they have been tempted into the Thai service industry in towns such as Mae Sot as an alternative to life in the spartan refugee camps. Naw Paw Nay, the leader of the Wangkha KWO committee, said it was difficult to prevent the girls from choosing this path: "They want to earn money to buy all the material goods they see in Thailand, but in the refugee camps they can't earn anything." The problem is apparently increasing, because when the girls return dressed in Thai finery to visit their villages across the border, their friends see how easy it is to make money and follow them back to Thailand.
The lack of money, or the means to earn it, in the Karen refugee camps along the Thai border is a major obstacle to KWO's activities. For example, part of KWO's social duties-which also include hospitality to visitors and marriage counseling-are to arrange for traditional Karen costumes to be woven and worn. In Wangkha refugee camp, however, which has a population of more than 2,000, few of the refugees are to be seen wearing traditional Karen clothing. Naw Paw Nay, who is seeking refuge in the camp together with several hundred other KWO members during the 1989 Burmese Army offensive against the Karen stronghold of Kawmoora, said it was impossible for them to raise money even to buy the thread to weave the garments. Aid to the nine refugee camps along the Thai border, with a total population of more than 20,000, consists only of rice and few other basic food necessities, provided mainly by a consortium of Christian agencies. The aid is channeled to the camps through the Karen Refugee Committee, based at Mae Sot.
Women Seek Greater Roles
Fortunately, however, in most areas KWO members are not confined to the refugee camps, and according to reports their organizational work has been remarkably successful in their respective districts. In the area of the central headquarters, for example, KWO has been systematically organizing villages for the last few years, and now, according to Saw Kaw Soe, "when the men go off to the front line, the women are building bridges, and doing development work in the villages by themselves."
During battles this year at Maetawaw, village women from the area around Manerplaw took turns traveling south to the battle area, in groups of up to 30 or 40, to cook rations for the Karen troops. Before the establishment of KWO, this had never happened.
KWO's active role in supporting KNU's armed revolution is evidenced by the presence of more than 50 women soldiers at KNU's headquarters. KWO is responsible for recruiting women as soldiers from every district. Any woman who is older than 15 and is healthy and unmarried can join the army. Most of the women soldiers have been recruited since 1986, but so far none have been sent into front-line combat; they are used for guard duty instead. Many of them are said to be girls who have suffered directly the atrocities committed by the Burmese Army.
Even though KNU is letting women into the ranks of its army, nevertheless there are still no women in the main KNU administration. When asked if Karen women would like more power in the organization, Naw Paw Nay smiled broadly and replied, "Of course." Clearly, with names of women leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Corazon Aquino mentioned frequently in KWO's magazine, Karen women must envision playing a more significant role in Karen politics in the future. For the moment, however, the national liberation struggle comes first.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.