Following the landslide victory led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy in the 2015 national elections, Myanmar embarked on policy reforms of anti-corruption and foreign investment laws, which has led to an increase in foreign investment and a stronger valuation of the kyat (Burmese currency). The election served as an important milestone in Myanmar’s road to a liberal democracy. However, the country’s attempt to achieve economic growth and a liberal democracy would be challenging if the issue of gender inequality is left unaddressed. Gender inequality in Myanmar is a longstanding issue which has been institutionalised and naturalised within the public and private spheres. Since 1988, Myanmar has borne the social, economic and political effects of General Ne Win’s coup d’état under the ‘Burmese Road to Socialism’ in 1962, which has contributed to the increasingly unequal role of women.
The militarisation of Myanmar has perpetuated gender inequality within politics and the workforce. Data from Gender Equality and Women’s Rights in Myanmar: A Situation Analysis by the United Nations Development Programme showing women’s representation in Myanmar’s Union, Region and State parliaments calculate that only 3.4% of Burmese women were elected to Parliament during 2013, and only a total of 4.6% held elected seats. Labour force participation rate also differs significantly between genders. According to the 2010 Integrated Household Living Conditions survey, the participation rate for males was 82.1% and 53.9% for females. In order to understand the gender gap present within politics and the tertiary sector of the economy, we might explore how gender norms have influenced career choices and aspirations. The military regime has constructed different social images for men and women, which have been deeply entrenched in social institutions – men are depicted as assertive, ambitious, career-oriented breadwinners, while women are considered to be docile, obedient and family-oriented. Before the military rule, women were known to dominate the commerce sector. However these positions have been given to military men, thus leaving women with jobs in the industrial sector. While industrialisation has reduced the extent of poverty amongst the nation, it has ironically placed Myanmar in a vicious cycle as gender inequality within the workforce and politics have dampened women’s educational aspirations, which in turn impedes Myanmar’s productivity and economic growth in the long run.
The heightened cost of living, a result of the removal of fuel subsidies in August 2007, has had negative impact on women’s health and mental wellbeing, as many struggle to support their households amidst poor infrastructural support and rising cost of living. According to the Index of Economic Freedom, high inflation, which averaged at 30.1% between 2005 and 2007, is another issue that has resulted from the military regime. The rise in the prices of petrol and basic commodities is a constant source of stress for women. After conducting interviews with local Burmese women, social anthropologist Dr Daw Khin Mar Mar Kyi found out that many women experienced migraines caused by the smoke and noise produced by low quality generators, which they had to resort to using due to the lack of water and electricity provided. Few women have attempted to run small businesses, such as photocopy shops, to help contribute towards their household income. However, many are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.
In addition, women’s reproductive and bodily rights are not met due to their limited access to contraceptives and sexual healthcare. The current situation in Myanmar shows that nearly 1.8 million women of reproductive age do not have access to modern contraceptive methods. As a traditionally conservative society, issues relating to sexual health are rarely discussed openly in mainstream media and in the formal education system. The media both echoes and shapes the public opinion, focusing on women’s role as a child bearer and caretaker, and avoiding ‘taboo’ topics such as female sexual health. The social stigma placed upon the use of contraceptives, especially for unmarried women, has resulted in many women choosing not to use contraceptives despite their availability. We might, therefore, argue that this has deprived Burmese women of their reproductive rights, which include the right to sexual healthcare information and the right to approach these issues without being stigmatised. The lack of these rights has led to abortion complications, which constitute as one of the main causes of maternal deaths, along with unsanitary conditions and lack of basic sex education, despite abortion being illegal under Myanmar law. According to the UNICEF Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR), which calculates maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, Myanmar’s MMR still stands at 178, relative to other Southeast Asian countries such as Singapore and Malaysia which are estimated at 10 and 40 respectively. Additionally, there is a lack of postnatal care provided for mothers; 90% of Burmese women are said to have home births, while 5% are helped by a traditional midwife. The lack of health care services (both provision and consumption) has physical and psychological consequences – it causes greater exposure to sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV, as well as robbing women of the right to make decisions regarding their own body.
Furthermore, physical and sexual violence inflicted on women are often justified and dismissed as family matters, placing women in a vulnerable position. A study in 2005 from the Asian Journal of Social Psychology that surveyed 286 married Burmese women recorded that 69% of them had experienced marital abuse in the year prior to the interview, with 27% reporting physical assault. Sadly, it was noted that 93% of these women did not seek formal support against the abuse. The study states the main factor inhibiting marital abuse prevention is its cultural acceptance and the dismissal of these incidents as “family matters”, which adds to the difficult predicament of the Burmese women. In addition, the prevalence of domestic abuse is attributed to the lack of public awareness of this issue due to insufficient data on the extent, causes and its repercussions.
Increasing consensus on the economic benefits of gender equality has led to open discussions and policy suggestions to advance women’s rights in Myanmar. The 2016 National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women and the Asian Development Plan has provided several policy recommendations, including stating gender equality as an explicit priority of economic policies and institutional rules, and increasing women’s legal status in the economy through land and property ownership, inheritance and minimum wages. There are also plans to expand women’s economic opportunities by investing in public infrastructure and services, especially in rural areas, as well as increasing workforce participation through additional skills training, maternal leave, health insurance and work security. The empowerment of women in the workplace is an integral step to economic achievements across the Asian countries, and the success of export-oriented industries in various other ASEAN countries correlated to the considerable number of women labour in their sectors. This is certainly an ambitious objective with a lengthy process, but will no doubt offer countless long-term prospects.
Overall, there have been efforts taken to promote women’s reproductive rights in Myanmar. One notable legislation is the new Constitution put forward after the 2015 national general elections with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi assuming the role as the State Counsellor. This has led to the abolishment of domestic media pre-publication censorship, allowing 300 newspaper and magazines and 30,000 internet sites to publish materials without censorship restraints nor limiting user access. While political interference and risks of prosecution in the broadcasting sector still exist, there has nonetheless been a rise in internet access for civilians, allowing an avenue for public discourse which can potentially reduce the stigma of engaging with sexual health. Also, development of services for people with HIV, such as counselling and tests, is crucial in addition to breaking down the stigmas associated with sexually transmitted diseases. In addition, the 2016 National Strategic Plan has outlined the need to develop reproductive health services and educate women on contraception and the dangers of unsafe abortions.
However, implementing these policies will be tricky due to limited research and data collection on private hospitals. Also, funding is costly for medical education and infrastructure, as health workers have difficulties accessing rural areas, where 70% of the population resides in. Fortunately, Myanmar currently has the support of many international organisations. From early 2016, the UNFPA has been working with the Myanmar health ministry to provide free contraceptive implants in qualified hospitals to low-income women, spending up to $2.8 million on contraceptives and reproductive health medicines. A sure sign in headway to confident family-planning, this relieves anxiety and stress from many Burmese married women, improving their mental wellbeing and financial situation. The provisions have been widely received across the country; the UNFPA have even taken extra measures to ensure contact even in flood affected areas where accessibility is troublesome, providing mobile clinics or deploying contraceptives and reproductive health supplies. If the effort is maintained, Myanmar’s healthcare will no doubt progress steadily and see its policies effectively implemented.
In conclusion, achieving women’s rights in Myanmar accomplish much more than merely benefiting Burmese women. Many problems that the women currently face contribute to overall aggregate health and productivity, which in turn are crucial factors that influence the country’s economic growth and social fabric. In particular, a higher female labour force participation can help to boost domestic growth and economic development. This is notably important due to the increasingly hostile global environment, such as President Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership which has ominous implications towards the headway of economic integration and global trade and investment amongst ASEAN. Thus, it is essential to realise the role gender equality plays in creating a stable foundation for further socio-economic development and stability.
Natalie is a 2nd year student studying Economics, Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick. She is also part of Warwick ASEAN Conference, AIESEC, Enactus Warwick, and has done volunteering in Indonesia regarding animal welfare. Her writing interests include economic development and gender studies. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
*This article was first published by Warwick ASEAN Conference on 1st February 2017 at: http://warwickaseanconference.com/womens-rights-in-myanmar-a-work-in-progress/
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.