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Karen Women Village Chiefs: Leadership During and After Armed Conflict

Karen Women Village Chiefs: Leadership During and After Armed Conflict


The period before the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in 2011 was marked by intense armed conflict that had a profound impact on women, particularly in the Karen State of Burma (Jolliffe, 2015). The Karen community, a significant ethnic group in Burma, has been subjected to severe political constraints, economic manipulation, and cultural oppression by the Burmese military regimes (Milbrandt, 2012). The strategies employed by the Burma Army were designed to quash armed ethnic resistance groups by cutting off their access to essential resources such as food, funds, manpower, and information. This approach resulted in extensive military hostility and economic transgressions in the Karen State (‘Kill Me Instead of Them’ A Report on the Resilience of Karen Women Village Chiefs, 2020).

Women and children bore the brunt of these conflicts, enduring random detentions and executions, physical torment, homicide, forced relocation and land seizure, and coerced enrollment into military support roles. They were also subjected to sexual violence and abuse (Falb et al., 2013).

In spite of the adversities, Karen women holding leadership roles leveraged their influence to shield their communities from the threats and assaults of the Burma Army (Karen Women Organization, 2010). Many of these women village chiefs, despite being unlettered or having minimal education, relied on their lived experiences and learned from their mistakes to make crucial decisions. They promptly addressed the soldiers’ demands to prevent any backlash against their fellow villagers (KWO, 2010).

As men became increasingly hesitant to put their lives at risk by taking on the role of village chiefs, women courageously stepped forward to fill these leadership positions, hoping to alleviate the abuses inflicted on their communities. However, the narratives of these women chiefs reveal that they were not spared from the brutality of the Burma Army. In fact, they continued to endure systematic abuse, including violence specifically targeted at their gender (KWO, 2010). The village chiefs also organized meetings to keep the villagers aware of what was happening, and to consult them on how to proceed in the most beneficial way, given the demands of the Burma Army and Karen soldiers.

The period before the NCA was marked by intense armed conflict that had a profound impact on women, particularly those in leadership positions. Despite the challenges, these women showed resilience and courage in protecting their communities.

Research questions

This paper seeks to delve into the intricate dynamics of gender, conflict, and leadership within the context of the Karen National Union’s control areas. It aims to answer two primary research questions:

  1. What are the challenges that Karen women village chiefs face during armed conflict from the gender perspective under Karen National Union’s control areas?
  2. How does the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) affect women’s access to community leadership roles?

In the following sections, I will delve deeper into these questions, drawing from existing literature, case studies, and peer reviewed journal articles. I will also explore the broader context of women’s roles in armed conflict, the concept of patriarchy in Karen State, and the barriers and challenges women face in accessing community leadership roles. The goal is to provide a comprehensive understanding of the experiences of Karen women village chiefs during and after armed conflict.

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‘Kill Me Instead of Them’ A Report on the Resilience of Karen Women Village Chiefs. (2020). Available at: https://karenwomen.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/report_kill-me-instead-of-them-eng-1.pdf.

Falb, K.L., McCormick, M.C., Hemenway, D., Anfinson, K. and Silverman, J.G., 2013. Violence against refugee women along the Thai–Burma border. International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics120(3), pp.279-283.

Jolliffe, K., 2015. Ethnic armed conflict and territorial administration in Myanmar. The Asia Foundation89.

Karen Women Organization. 2010. Walking amongst sharp knives. Available at: https://karenwomen.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/walkingamongstsharpknives.pdf

Milbrandt, J., 2012. Tracking genocide: Persecution of the Karen in Burma. Tex. Int’l LJ48, p.63.

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