Before setting foot in Myanmar, we didn’t know much about the country or about women’s conditions there. One thing that we knew was that the country was being led by a feminine icon, Aung San Suu Kyi. This was just before the world was made aware of the extent of the Rohingya’s crisis, right before she fell hard from her pedestal.
One thing that caught our attention was how men responded to our project whenever we presented it. Pretty much all of them were saying: “we are led by Aung San Suu Kyi, she is a woman, which proves that there is no gender discrimination here.” It seemed logical, if a woman can access the highest position of power, it should mean that the situation of women is not that bad, that the glass ceiling is not that sealed here. Whenever we mentioned this fact to women though… they begged to differ ! According to several of them, a woman being at the head of the country has been the number one excuse for all politicians to pretend that there is no such thing as sexism in Myanmar, making it more difficult for feminists to make their voices heard. So, how has having a woman in power actually changed things for women in Myanmar ?
What are Aung San Suu Kyi’s positions about women’s rights?
In November 2017, Aung San Suu Kyi spoke at the ASEAN business and Investment summit in Manila about the contribution of women in Myanmar’s economy. During her speech she stated: “Many people say that Burmese women are perfectly equal in society – it’s not true”. One thing that seems clear is that the fact that women are suffering from discrimination in Myanmar is still debated. But she herself has been a victim of sexist discrimination: before she had the position as the head of the country, the military officers often referred to her as the “foreigner’s wife”, or even commented on her feminine appearance.
This comment was thus very rare in Myanmar. According to women’s rights activist Ma May Sabe Phyu, those were surprising comments, and even if they were very welcome, there is still need for concrete steps rather than words. At this same summit, Aung San Suu Kyi vowed to create an environment that would enable women to reach their full potential.
According to Way Phyo Myint (read her full interview), Aung San Suu Kyi has on several occasions talked about the challenges of women at the international summit, but these intentions fell short of actual commitments at the national level.
What is ASSK’s margin of action in Myanmar?
The area where Aung San Suu Kyi could have made the most difference is in politics. However, as of today, women only hold two minister positions. Out of the 330 townships in the country, none are headed by a woman, and only 13,7% of elected parliament seats are held by women, which represents 10,7% of all parliaments’ seats (25% of the seats are not elected, they are reserved to the military). The involvement of women in politics has improved since the election of Aung San Suu Kyi as the de facto leader but still fails to reach the level of its Asian neighbors.
Women’s rights in the constitution
The constitution in place today in Myanmar has been written by the junta before handing over the power to the democratically elected government. It thus still bears the marks of another time. Indeed, women are referred to mostly as mothers, and if discrimination based on gender is prohibited in appointing government positions, the constitution still refers to “positions that are naturally suitable for men only”. Changing the constitution might prove extremely difficult for the power in place today as it requires 75% approval of the government, and 25% of the seats are still exclusively reserved for the army.
The National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women (NSPAW)
However, Myanmar does have a policy in place to improve women’s situation in the country: the National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women (NSPAW), which was enforced in 2013 and intends on running until 2022, which aims at eliminating all forms of discrimination. So far today, most of the intentions remain only as intentions!
As this strategic plan is viewed as an encouraging step towards the improvement of the conditions of all women in Myanmar, many organizations have clear reservations.
Indeed, gender based violence and the need to include more women in the decision making process is addressed only in general terms, without any practical action to undertake nor any measurable outputs. Plus, its implementation seems to remain wishful thinking. One of the most important gaps in this text is the absence of any reference to the specific situation of gender-based violence during conflict situations. Incidences of gender based violence in conflict situations in Myanmar are far from being isolated occurrences (read our article on ethnic minorities), and the state perpetrators still benefit from almost complete impunity on this matter, as the state keeps on denying most of the atrocities that have occurred, despite numerous reports by various human rights organizations.
The situation of minority women in conflict situations, especially in Northern Rakhine (see article on rohingyas) got so alarming that the independent committee in charge of monitoring the implementation of CEDAW in Myanmar had to request a special report on the situation of women and girls in Rakhine. According to the OHCHR “It is only the 4th time an exceptional report has been requested by the committee since holding its 1st session in October 1982”. Despite that, the government still denies any wrongdoing in the Rakhine state and denies UN agencies access to the region.
Myanmar became a part of CEDAW in 1997. In 2016, the newly elected NLD (Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party) got to defend its record regarding women’s rights at the CEDAW meeting in Geneva. This meeting was NLD’s opportunity to take the platform and set a path for the advancement of women’s rights in Myanmar. Instead, the delegation defended the fact that women had the same rights as men in Myanmar, due, according to them, to the non-discriminatory traditions of the country.
They did however admit that women’s involvement in politics remained low despite some improvement, but there was no mention of the structural barriers for women to access power positions.
During that same meeting, it was clearly stated that the NLD had no intention of repealing the Race and Religion Laws, passed by the previous government and heavily criticized by women’s groups for their obvious misogyny.
The Race and Religion laws
The previous government after strong lobbying of the Buddhist nationalist groups passed these four laws. The laws, among other provisions, restrict how often women are allowed to give birth and require that Buddhist women get permission from local officials before marrying outside of their faith.
Protection and Prevention of Violence against Women
As for actual laws protecting women, the Protection and Prevention of Violence against Women law has still not been submitted to the government, even though its first draft dates back to 2013, making it clear that the backlash is strong when it comes to women’s rights.
It seems clear that women’s rights are currently not the government’s priority. Speeches do not seem to translate into actual action at the national level. It seems that even acknowledging the fact that women do not benefit for the same rights as men is still a highly controversial view, even though it is the case for the immense majority – if not all – of the societies in the world.
Aung San Suu Kyi has not been in power for long enough for things to be radically different, plus, she still has little or no control over the military’s actions. However, how could someone refusing to address the nightmarish conditions of Rohingya women still be a symbol of hope for women ?
Bustle – What Is The Rohingya Muslim Crisis? It’s A Feminist Issue – JR Thorpe – 12/09/2017 –https://www.bustle.com/p/what-is-the-rohingya-muslim-crisis-its-a-feminist-issue-2308511
Foreign Policy – Burma’s Women Are Still Fighting for Their Rights – Wai Moe – 02/07/2015 – https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/07/02/burmas-women-are-still-fighting-for-their-rights-myanmar/
The Irrawaddy – Daw Aung San Suu Kyi Vows to Create ‘Enabling Environment for Women’ – San Yamin Aung – 16/11/2017 – https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/daw-aung-san-suu-kyi-vows-create-enabling-environment-women.html
Leitner Center for International Law and Justice – Submission to the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar – 15/02/2018 – http://www.leitnercenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Leitner-Center-FFMM-Submission.pdf
Human Rights Watch – Myanmar: Deadline to Report on Rape of Rohingya to UN – 24/05/2018 – https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/05/24/myanmar-deadline-report-rape-rohingya-un
Myanmar Times – As Myanmar comes under CEDAW review, rights groups present legacy of stigma, victim-blaming – Malarvili Meganathan – 08/07/2016 – https://www.mmtimes.com/national-news/21282-as-myanmar-comes-under-cedaw-review-rights-groups-present-legacy-of-stigma-victim-blaming.html
‘Women do not face social barriers’, Myanmar CEDAW delegation tells experts in Geneva – Malarvili Meganathan – 11/07/2016 – https://www.mmtimes.com/national-news/21299-women-do-not-face-social-barriers-myanmar-cedaw-delegation-tells-experts-in-geneva.html
New govt to defend ‘race and religion’ laws at UN meeting – Fiona MacGregor and Thu Thu Aung – 06/07/2016 – https://www.mmtimes.com/national-news/21218-new-govt-to-defend-race-and-religion-laws-at-un-meeting.html
UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) – Myanmar: UN experts request exceptional report on situation of women and girls from northern Rakhine State – https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=22459&LangID=E
International Labor Organization – Myanmar: General Provisions – Buddhist Women Special Marriage Law (Pyidaungsu Hluttaw Law No. 50/2015). – http://www.ilo.org/dyn/natlex/natlex4.detail?p_lang=&p_isn=103620&p_classification=01
Amnesty International – Myanmar: Scrap ‘race and religion laws’ that could fuel discrimination and violence – 03/03/2015 – https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/03/myanmar-race-and-religion-laws/
The Diplomat – The truth about Myanmar’s new discriminatory laws – Michael Caster – 26/08/2015 –https://thediplomat.com/2015/08/the-truth-about-myanmars-new-discriminatory-laws/