By Nitipol Kiravanich – Office of Public Affairs
Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) Gender and Development Studies (GDS) alumna (class of 2011), Mrs. May Sabe Phyu is awarded the Franco-German Prize titled “Human Rights and the Rule of Law” in 2021 by the French and German Embassy in Myanmar — for her lifelong commitment and contribution to women’s rights in Myanmar.
March 8 is annually marked as “International Women’s Day (IWD)” — a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. IWD also serves as a call to action for accelerating gender parity. With regards to this, Mrs. Phyu is internationally recognized for her ‘bravery and commitment’ in advocating the full and equal rights of women as well as ethnic and religious minorities in Myanmar for the past two decades. In receiving the Franco-German Prize, Mrs. Phyu responded gratefully to the award — underscoring, “by receiving this prestigious award, I consider it to be the contribution to raising more visibility to women leadership.”
Every story has its beginning.
Mrs. May Sabe Phyu is known among peers as “Phyu Phyu,” and by her Kachin name Lashi Labya Hkawn Htoi. She was born in Yangon on August 5, 1976. She began her academic career in Mathematics, and received her Bachelor’s of Science from the University of Distance Education, Yangon, then secured her Master’s Degree at AIT in GDS Program in 2011. She later received her second Master’s in Public Administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 2018.
Upon discovering both herself and her professional career, Mrs. Phyu, like many others, did not know where her path would lead. Still, she was certain that must advocate and battle for equality and human rights in Myanmar — and make her belief that “people have rights to live with dignity” turn into tangible reality.
From a young age, Mrs. Phyu grew up in the Kachin region witnessing her father’s (where she spoke about him as a kindhearted individual who works remotely providing medical services to villagers) contribution to the rural areas of Myanmar as a doctor. There she encountered the differences and inequality in society — mainly in the medical services, transportation, and living standards.
Furthermore, being a woman begs another question ‘why is there discrimination in a society and the world?’. At this point, Mrs. Phyu has vowed to be a part of a force to eradicate such inequality and elevate human rights. “I truly believe in equality and social justice,” Mrs. Phyu highlighted one of the most valuable thoughts in her life.
A lifelong career as a human rights activist
Mrs. Phyu started her career as a public worker at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders is an international humanitarian medical non-governmental organization of French origin best known for its projects in conflict zones and in countries affected by endemic diseases), where she resigned as a team leader in 2006.
Later in 2009, she enrolled in the GDS Program and earned her Master’s Degree in 2011 at AIT. At this time of her life, she pointed out, “AIT has contributed much in my career, and this place allows me to be a more outspoken person.”
After receiving her Master’s in 2011, Mrs. Phyu helped establish a Coordination Unit at the Gender Equality Network (GEN). GEN is a ground-breaking grassroots network of over 120 women’s rights organizations that 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. Later, she became the Director of GEN in 2014.
Recognized by international communities
Throughout her career, Mrs. Phyu chases no awards or recognition. However, her contributions did not go unnoticed. Before Franco-German Award, she received an “International Woman of Courage” by the United States of America in 2015 for her contribution to and equal rights of women in ethnic and religious minorities in Myanmar.
In 2017, she was the recipient of the “Global Trailblazer Award” by Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace & Security for her role in advancing the Women, Peace, and Security agenda in Myanmar.
Two years later, in 2019, she was awarded the “N Peace Award” (a United Nations Development Programme flagship initiative founded in 2010 to commemorate a decade of UNSCR 1325 implementation via the Women, Peace, and Security agenda).
Mrs. Phyu is now residing in the United States of America, where she can physically attend important international forums and seminars and continue her work in laying the foundations for equality. “I would like people to remember me fighting for justice and standing with the people,” Mrs. Phyu envisions her life.