Woman of Courage: Naw K’nyaw Paw 

March 22, 2019

By Ashley A Yu


Naw K’nyaw Paw and an old friend at the Karen Organization of San Diego Ms Naw K’nyaw Paw (left) unexpectedly meets an old friend at a meeting with the Karen Organization of San Diego. She holds a photo they took together on the Thai-Burma border in 2008. Photo captured by Brittany Lynk. 
Courageous women inspire others, and Naw K’nyaw Paw is no exception. Born displaced in Burma, Naw K’nyaw Paw spent her childhood constantly on the run. After settling in Mae Ra Moe refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border, she distinguished herself as a human rights activist at an early age. Now, with 20 years of experience and extensive knowledge of trafficking in persons, the rights of the displaced, and the peace process, she is the General Secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO). Under her leadership, the KWO was the first of three women’s civic society organizations in Burma to publicly condemn the military-led violence against the Rohingya people in Rakhine State that began in August 2017. Part of a larger pattern of conflict with ethnic groups, Burma is considered to have one of the longest ongoing civil wars in history. Ultimately, KWO envisions a more inclusive and united Burma, where all ethnic groups can live in peace and without fear. 

Despite facing the potential of harassment at border crossings and on social media, Naw K’nyaw Paw came to Washington, D.C. to accept the 2019 International Women of Courage (IWOC) Award and act as keynote speaker on behalf of all 10 awardees. Now in its 13th year, the Secretary of State’s IWOC Award recognizes women around the world who have shown leadership, courage, resourcefulness, and willingness to sacrifice for others, especially in promoting women's rights. When asked how she felt being an award recipient, Naw K’nyaw Paw said she was honored, but “this award is not just for myself as an individual, it is going to KWO. At KWO, we believe in collective leadership because I cannot do this alone.” 

In the spirit of collective learning and leadership, Naw K’nyaw Paw and eight other awardees are currently embarking on an exchange with the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), which connects foreign leaders with their American counterparts for short-term visits in the United States to build mutual understanding on foreign policy issues. For her IVLP visit, Naw K’nyaw Paw has traveled to San Diego, California, where she will meet with community-based organizations that address issues such as gender-based violence, community building and empowerment of women and minorities.  

As demonstrated by KWO and all the Women of Courage, there is no limit to what people can do when they collaborate. At the end of her keynote IWOC speech, Naw K’nyaw Paw proclaimed, “I’d like to close with a poem by Rupi Kaur: ‘I stand on the sacrifices of a million women before me, thinking what can I do to make this mountain taller, so the women after me can see farther.’’