Fighting, even for the smallest thing

Wai Phyo Myint

Yangon, Myanmar


“There is still a long way for us”

My name is Wai Phyo Myint, I am 33 years old and I am a manager at the Myanmar Center for Responsible Business.

Right now, there are a lot of discussions, even with men, about what’s going on for women, regarding their role and their place in leadership. There is also some debates going on, even within couples about women’s condition and gender discrimination in Myanmar, and everybody has an opinion. But still, regarding discrimination, women’s role in leadership, etc. there is still a long way for us.

“I’ve experienced that throughout my whole career”

In my job I have to engage with the government and the parliament, I have been doing this for 3 or 4 years now. And even if now, we have a new government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who is a female leader, it doesn’t mean that everything has automatically changed. For example, a couple of weeks ago I had a meeting with a person who is a General in a government office and there were 4 people meeting with him. I was the only woman and the youngest but I was representing my organization and the topic of the meeting was about an issue we have been focusing on so I knew what I was talking about. Basically I was the leader of that group. The others were two male foreigners and an elder Burmese man. So I was the one who was supposed to lead the conversation, but what happened is that the General didn’t even greet me, he greeted the 3 others, but not me. But it wasn’t a first time for me, it’s not an exceptional situation, I’ve experienced that throughout my whole career.

Also, last month, we ran a campaign about criminalized defamation in the law because many journalists or human rights activists have been arrested under this law which criminalizes the expression online, so we are trying to advocate for the removal of this law. We had been working on it for several months and meeting with government officials and MPs (Members of Parliaments). Most of our meetings are with older gentlemen, they are all men over 50 or 60 years old. And even if I have studied the issue, I have clear points, I am able to discuss this issue, I do bring a meaningful discussion to the table, the way they treat me just because I am younger and a woman, is definitely not as an equal. They always call me “thamee”, which means daughter in Burmese. Even if we address them appropriately, we request the meeting in a formal way, at the end of the meeting, they will say things like “keep working, we really appreciate your effort, through this you will get mature and then you will understand the bigger picture”! So this is condescending, they won’t take me seriously.

“Women (…) don’t have a supporting mechanism at home”

Besides, things get even more difficult when women have children, many women have to resign from their job, and then suddenly in their homes the rules change. Previously they might have been the breadwinner and had equal status with their husband but then suddenly, they become a mother and all the rules change, their position change, the respect has changed and even the treatment they receive from their husbands change. I have a daughter who is almost 2 years old, so if we had had this chat maybe 2 or 3 years ago, there are many things that I wouldn’t have noticed but now I have started paying attention.

Women who are at the age of having children, they have to take positions that are a little more flexible. Women are not likely to take positions that are a little more challenging because they don’t have a supporting mechanism at home. There is no support from the government either, for example there is no childcare system provided by the government so we have to do it all by ourselves. So who is taking care of the children? Who is taking care of the household? Inside the majority of the Burmese households, women are taking care of everything, it’s starting to change but in most houses, women are the ones doing the cooking, the washing, men don’t really do that, they are not stepping up, not at all. For example, my husband cooks at home, sometimes I take pictures of him cooking to put them on Facebook and then my husband’s friends are making insulting jokes about him, and even my female friends are saying things like, “if he is cooking then what are you doing?”. If I was the one cooking, I don’t think they would ask the same questions to my husband. Here there is still a long way for that to change.

“For women there is a clear setback in their career when they have a baby ”

Basically, here at my organization, we promote responsible practice in business, so we check with companies if they follow the government’s rules and regulations including whether or not they provide maternity leave. But sometimes the local laws are not enough. We have a law that forces companies to provide paid maternity leave for 2 and a half months. But the big issue in Myanmar is that many men and women are working in the informal sector so they don’t apply this law. The other issue is with daily wage workers like women working in construction sites etc. they’re not covered by this law either. So from the legal point of view there are still some gaps to ensure that women get paid maternity leave. Also, some companies don’t want to provide paid maternity leave, so they don’t employ women at all! Especially with small local companies, many just fire women once they get pregnant, they find an excuse and they fire them!

There is paternity leave in Myanmar for 2 weeks, but most men don’t take it. I have never heard about a man who took his paternity leave! Even my husband, I had to force him to take paternity leave, but he took only one week. Men are very reluctant to take that leave. For women there is a clear setback in their career when they have a baby. Many women leave their demanding job when they reach the age to bear children, and they start taking more flexible jobs, so of course men take the advantage because the work environment is competitive.

“I have never ever heard Aung San Suu Kyi talking about equality for women”

I have never ever heard Aung San Suu Kyi talking about equality for women. That is a very shameful thing. I used to be a strong supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi but I get a little bit critical now. I have really noticed that she never ever discusses women’s issues. Sometimes she talks about these issues when she is speaking at international forums outside of the country, and it’s more in broad terms you know, but inside the country she is never addressing it.

Apart from her, women don’t access high positions in the government. Amidst all the offices, ministers, deputy ministers etc. she is the only woman. In the previous government there were a couple of women but not anymore. The number of women representatives at the minister and deputy minister positions is going down. And the other thing is the parliament, in the parliament, the number of women members has slightly increased, compared to the previous parliament. It’s now 13,7% I think, it hasn’t even reached the 20%. The parliament said they wanted to have a least 30% of women representatives.

In the previous government we had a couple of women ministers but those were ministers handling things like social welfare. Even a woman who used to be deputy governor of the central bank, and who spent her whole career in the financial sector was nominated as Minister of Education! How was that relevant to her previous career?! And now we don’t even have any women appointed for ministry’s positions. Personally I criticize Aung San Suu Kyi strongly for that. She never talked about equality for Burmese women. And then when we look at it, in her team the only women present are assistants. So yes, we have a woman leader but I really question her willingness to support Burmese women. She is not that kind of a leader. She used to be such an icon, now people are beginning to get skeptical. That’s really disappointing.

“Having a woman leader in this country doesn’t mean it will make any difference for the rest of the women”

Whenever we want to start discussing these issues, people say, Aung San Suu Kyi is a woman and she is the head of the state so we are already there, we shouldn’t even discuss it! So that makes it even more difficult for us, that’s not helpful at all.

We talk about the fact that the country has been in the process of transition, from dictatorship to a democratic government, it doesn’t mean that automatically our voices will be heard or that we will be truly represented. Women are still a marginalized group in Myanmar, even if we have a female leader. This is a phenomenon that we have already seen in the region, in Indonesia for example, they used to have a female leader, in the Philippines as well, and when you look closely at those leaders, they are not coming out of nowhere. They’re always someone’s daughter or someone’s wife or sister, they came to that position through their connections. They earn the respect through their connections, not through who they are. That’s how they gain the public’s respect and support. Having a woman leader in this country doesn’t mean it will make any difference for the rest of the women.

“Those little things add up”

There is still a long way. We still need to change people’s mindset. For example, almost every household in Myanmar has a rack to dry clothes, and you put men’s clothes on the higher one and women’s on the lowest. For those who have a washing machine, most don’t mix men and women’s clothes together. And I know those are little things, but those little things add up. And now I have a daughter so I have to argue against my family, my colleagues and literally everyone, every time one of them makes a discriminatory remark against girls or women. Every single day I have to fight someone to explain to them, “the way you speak is not right”. I don’t want my daughter to waste her childhood being surrounded by those stereotypes.

I have some friends, they support feminism, they talk about equality between men and women but when you look within their household, when you visit their home it’s still the wife who does the majority of the domestic chores.  Sometimes I bring up those issues to them, I say “you talk about supporting equality and I appreciate that but you also have to take concrete steps”. It’s not just talk, you have to change your behavior as well. I like that people are talking about it but things need to change in practice, not just in theory. But for that we still don’t see much change.

My commitment to women’s rights started even before I had a daughter. Before I used to work for a newspaper as a journalist. In the newsroom we had men and women journalists, that was in the early 2000’s, and I could already hear things like “that career is not appropriate for women”, and that was all the time. But luckily I have very supportive parents. In the classroom, we all fought to have the highest grades and be first of the class. Whenever I lost, my teachers would tell my parents that it was ok because I had lost to a boy and they were genetically smarter than girls! But my parents fought for me, they told the teacher that I was not genetically inferior. And that wasn’t one teacher, many were saying that kind of things. Most of them were saying that men were smarter than women. That was like a general behavior.

“Sometimes you are too tired to fight it. But even for the smallest thing you always have to fight!”

When I got pregnant, I was very active, I stayed at work literally until the last minute, I was travelling to work every day and everyone told me “you are so active even though you are so pregnant! It’s definitely a boy” So I corrected everyone and told them “no, I am carrying a girl”!! So you see you hear all those stereotypes before your baby is even born! And when you hear that every day, sometimes you are too tired to fight it. But even for the smallest thing you always have to fight! I remember when I was pregnant I had the ultrasound to find out the sex of my baby and the doctor asked my husband, “is this your first baby?” My husband said “yes”, and the doctor, who was a woman, said: “oh I’m so sorry, it’s a girl”. I was mad, I told her “you shouldn’t be sorry you should be proud, I am!” So that’s why I say, every day, you always have to fight back. Sometimes people tell me that I am super sensitive, but I can’t just sit back and let people say that kind of things.

I told everyone around me, my family, colleagues, everyone, I will never, ever, tolerate any discriminatory term against my daughter! Even if I have to fight the gods! I will fight religion if I have too! Because when you look at the real teaching of Buddhism, it doesn’t actually say that women are inferior, Buddha doesn’t say anything like that but still, in Burmese belief, you will never be reincarnated as Buddha just because you were born a woman. So I say, “show me the Buddhist text that says that!” and they can’t because it doesn’t exist. So they say things like, “try hard, you can be anything, but you can’t experience enlightenment”. Women are always considered inferior even in religion, like they have a lower spiritual power.

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