An outside observer of Burmese politics might assume women in Burma have made progress towards equality in a way that hasn’t happened in many countries.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the general secretary of the National League for Democracy, for example, leads the democracy movement, and she’s one of the most admired politicians in the world.
Many other leading voices of the democracy movement are women, including Naw Zipporah Sein, who was elected general secretary of the Karen National Union, and labour activist Su Su Nway, who is currently serving a 12-year jail term for taking part in the uprising in 2007.
But on this International Women's Day, it would be wrong to conclude from these examples that women in Burma have achieved some level of equality.
A refugee from Burma now living in the USA was recently asked by an American newspaper what was like living so far from Burma. His answer: ‘It is very different here. We can’t beat our wives like we can at home.’
All areas of society in Burma are riddled with sexism and discrimination and such practices must be challenged.
The sad thing is how far down the women’s issue is on the national agenda. Most of the attention in the elections held in November last year was on whether they would be free and fair, or whether they would bring any real change.
A really striking feature, one ignored by almost everyone, was the lack of female participation. Perhaps, we could jokingly say this was because women are far too sensible to be fooled by the generals’ fake elections, but in fact it exposed a deeper problem in our society. Many women who did stand as candidates, did not get elected. There are now only a handful of women in the new Parliament.
Three women candidates, Nay Yee Ba Swe, Cho Cho Kyaw Nyein and Than Than Nu, received significant attention, but this was defined not by their politics, but by their gender, and the position of their fathers in society. Some of the media patronisingly called them ‘the Three Princesses.’ If they had been male would they have been called the Three Princes? Probably not.
Now the so-called ‘new’ Burmese government is being formed, and not one government minister is a woman.
Sexism and discrimination is now even legalised in the Burmese Constitution, in Article 352 which states:
‘The Union shall, upon specified qualifications being fulfilled, in appointing or assigning duties to civil service personnel, not discriminate for or against any citizen of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, based on race, birth, religion, and sex. However, nothing in this Section shall prevent appointment of men to the positions that are suitable for men only.’
The lack of female representation in politics can only partly explain why women’s issues do not get the attention they deserve, despite women often being in the frontline in suffering human rights abuses and coping with the poverty caused by the policies of the dictatorship.
The international community has a tendency to judge the situation in Burma by the situation of Suu Kyi. Is she under house arrest or not? Is she facing restrictions on her movement? What happens in the rest of Burma, where horrific human rights abuses continue to take place, tends to get ignored by Rangoon-based diplomats reporting back to their capitals.
The international community must pay more attention to discrimination and abuses suffered by women in Burma. It is women who bear the brunt of the dictatorship’s brutal atrocities. It is women who have to watch their children die from curable diseases because there are no doctors and no medicine, as the regime spends its money on guns, not health services. It is women who are subjected to rape as a weapon of war.
Rape in Burma is government policy. In ethnic areas, the Burmese Army has raped thousands of women. On a recent visit to the Thailand-Burma border, I met a woman who had fled Burma after twice being gang-raped by Burmese Army soldiers.
Such abuses must end. Next month European foreign ministers will meet to decide their policy on Burma for the coming year. One positive step they could take would be to support the recommendation of the United Nations’ own human rights expert on Burma; that the UN set up a Commission of Inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma.
It is now a year since he made that recommendation, but so far the EU has failed to support an inquiry. This will be seen by Burma’s generals as a green light to continue their policy of rape and repression. Women in Burma need international support, but so far the EU has failed them.
Zoya Phan is campaigns manager at Burma Campaign UK. She fled Burma at age 14 when the Burmese Army attacked her village. Her autobiography, Little Daughter, is published by Simon and Schuster.