BURMA: Empowering the Burmese majority

Saturday, November 6, 2010
South Eastern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

As Burma gears up for its first election in more than 20 years, Ye Maung and Khin Pyu Win explore key issues facing its people and what political parties plan to do about them. The first in the series discusses gender equality and women's rights.

An increasing volume of research links gender equality to better development outcomes in health, education and economic performance. Indeed, societies with greater equality between women and men, girls and boys, are healthier, safer and overall, more prosperous.

Without a clear agenda to address women's inequality, the new Hluttaw (parliament) will struggle to address Burma's key development challenges.

Interviews with candidates and young women voters reveal a big gap in understanding the problems and issues facing Burmese women and what needs to be done to address them.

Many parties appear ill-equipped to address the challenge of gender inequality.

What the candidates say:

Cho Cho Kyaw Nyein, Democratic Party (DP)

“I see we have equal rights between men and women in Burma, because Burmese women can keep hold of financial resources in a household and husbands must transfer their earnings to their wives. I am ready to fight discrimination against women. I will work for it within the democratic framework. If I get a chance to speak in the Hluttaw I will prioritise economic development and
health and social affairs. We have to work hard to reach
international standards.”
Dr. Than Nyein, National Democratic Front (NDF)

“We will operate within the international human rights frameworks. Our plans are mentioned in our party statements. We have a clear agenda on women's rights and will prioritise them”. The junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and National Unity Party (NUP) were unwilling to comment. Equality for women is a third Millennium Development Goal (MDG). One of its targets is to obtain equality of males and females in primary, secondary, and tertiary education enrolment. To that end, equality is measured by dividing the percentage of females of the relevant age group enrolled at each level by the corresponding percentage of males.

Equality in education

A 2010 ADB report* states there is greater gender equality in the Asia-Pacific region at the primary and secondary levels, though there are problems at the tertiary level. As the level of education increases, so do patterns of discrimination and unequal access. This also appears the case in Burma.

A young voter from Rangoon, Khine Khine (not her real name), told of her distress when she learned that only 20 per cent of 450 intake places had been earmarked for young women at the Myanmar Maritime University for the 2009-2010 academic year, and that they also had to obtain higher grades than men in entrance exams.

This problem exists across tertiary education where, for example, medical schools allocate 60 per cent of 2,400 student places to men and 40 per cent to women, based on recently obtained figures. According to sources, this is often despite women often having more competitive grades than male applicants.

Among Burma's future leaders, women are denied equal opportunities in access to higher education. Photo: Mizzima

When the Myanmar Maritime University recruited students for the academic year 2008-2009, young women made up 15 per cent of student intakes. Young men could gain access with a high-school exam score of 473, while women had to attain a score of 483. The cases give an example of how Burma's education system is discriminatory.

Respected paediatrician Dr. Moe Moe Hlaing confirmed such gender bias. “There are so many examples where women can't enjoy equal opportunities with men in our country.”

“If you monitor specialised clinics in Burma, there are many name tags of male specialist doctors, but only a few with women's names.”

According to the United Nations, the Millennium Development Goals are “the most broadly supported comprehensive and specific development goals the world has ever agreed upon. These eight, time-bound goals provide concrete, numerical benchmarks for tackling extreme poverty in its many dimensions. They include goals and targets on income poverty, hunger, maternal and child mortality, disease, inadequate shelter, gender inequality, environmental degradation and the Global Partnership for Development”.
She said this was because of gender discrimination in the awarding of state scholarships via a gender bias in the quota system. “The scholarship programme should be based on merit rather than gender, and all should enjoy equal rights,” she said.

“Doctors, particularly specialists, are overwhelmingly male by rule of thumb. Women leaders are the exception to the rule. If we can enjoy equal rights, qualified women can easily take up leadership roles,” Moe Moe Hlaing said.
Gender policies of parties contesting the election:

Not all parties have gender policies. A selection of those that do follow:
National Unity Party:
“We recognise that women represent the majority of the population in Burma; thus, the party will emphasise and implement women's development programmes.” The party will also strive for “emergence of intelligent women leaders in society as well as improvement of women's education standards, health, economic participation and living standards”. The party will also “raise the spirit of national patriotism and the spirit to maintain national culture and tradition among the female population” and “protect women from human-trafficking threats and will implement rehabilitation programmes for those who were victims of such abuses”.

Union Solidarity and Development Party:
“Women represent a majority of the population in Burma, thus it's essential to provide adequate social security and development programmes for them. In order to carry out such programmes, the party will try to enact relevant laws. In order to enable women to improve their education level, health and economic development, the party will try to provide help in various ways.”

Taaung (Palaung) National Party:
“The party will ensure that women in public service have the right to receive maternity leave and [other] relevant rights. The party will try to protect women rights.”
Chin National Party:
Printed statements indicate the party will “execute
policies that will protect women and children from
violent activities and forced labour”. Khine Khine said that while there had been minor improvements, “there is still a long way to go”.

There are strong incentives for the new parliament to take action on women's inequality. As UN women's empowerment body Unifem says, gender equality in education makes “significant contributions” to a nation's economic growth and poverty reduction, and to reducing malnutrition, fertility and child mortality.

A survey of currently available party policies, however, revealed that no parties standing in this year's election had plans for the removal of this discriminatory practice.

Economic marginalisation

An OECD report** notes that although women's equality is “safeguarded in national legislation, as well as in traditions” and customary laws there is a clear gender-based division of labour in Burma. In addition to performing 80 per cent of all agricultural labour, Burmese women carry the main burden of housework, according to the report. While this is not uncommon in the region, it creates the economic marginalization of women who work longer hours and are paid less.

It is dark at 8 p.m., but garment factories in the Hlaingtharyar Industrial Zone on the outskirts of Rangoon are buzzing with workers. Many women workers are not able to return home while their clothing quotas remain unfilled. Factory management provides a meagre dinner – 200 kyat (20 US cents) worth of coffee-mix and 50 kyat worth of bread.

Burmese women forced into hard labour on a road near the Indo-Burmese border. The majority of such workers are women.

Workers complain they are getting sick from long working hours and lack of access to clean drinking water at the factory. A woman tells that recently, some women have died from acute diarrhoea.

Earning only 30,000 kyat (around US$30) a month many workers are unable to provide the basics for their families. “There are few job opportunities out there for women, and that is the main reason we have to work in garment factories,” female garment worker Ma Hla Tin (not her real name) told Mizzima.

She said many wealthy factory owners exploit women by pressuring them to work long hours for low pay, and limiting their rights to maximise profits and keep costs low.

Female garment workers are not the only ones struggling to make ends meet at the bottom of the wage ladder. Women from the Irrawaddy Delta, whose livelihoods were already tenuous prior to Cyclone Nargis, had their incomes devastated in parts of the region after the cyclone.

Many women have moved away from their villages to seek work in factories, as domestic workers – or in Ma Hintha's case – as sex workers.

“Since Nargis struck I've been unable to earn a living in my home town and my families economic situation has deteriorated, until finally I ended up working here,” the 18-year-old Phone-Gyi Lan brothel worker, said.

She hasn't told her family in Bassein about her job – instead saying she is selling clothes at a market with friends, despite living and working at the brothel. Unlike Khine Khine, she is able to leave the brothel when she pleases, as long as she has serviced her clients. Nearly 30 girls work in the same brothel, she says.

“I have saved about 200,000 kyat a month (around US$200) and can support my family. Actually, I don't want to work in this kind of job, but when I see my young brothers, who need to attend school, and my father, who needs medicine, I have to work here to make the money.”

But her job is not secure. “The police can call anytime they want. Sometimes, we even have to give money to the police,” she said.

“Most brothel owners are businessmen with strong links to the authorities, many of whom are bribed for their protection,” Khine Khine said. “Recently, brothel owners have reaped the benefits of targeting vulnerable girls from poor communities”.

A female vendor who didn't want to be named, has worked at a Pratunam market for the last three years stated, "If I can save 100 Baht a day, it's enough to support my whole family at home. In Burma, I can't even make 1,000 Kyats a day.

“I'd like to go home, but there are few economic opportunities in Rangoon and Burma is weak in women rights. That why I am here”, she said.

Legal protection of women's rights

Burma has long-standing numerous legal provisions against discrimination of women in political, economic, administrative, judicial and social sectors, according to a State Peace and Development Council (SPDC, the Burmese junta's name for itself) report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw) made under a signatory's regular reporting arrangements.

Women's equality is implied in the 1947 and 1974 constitutions, as well as the 2008 constitution laid down by the controversial National Convention. While there are some regulations to protect Burmese women's rights women rarely use these laws.

“We have many acts and regulations for the protection of women rights and there are also some mechanisms for tackling abuses. But women daren't make complaints because they may lose their jobs,” a female judge working at a Rangoon Divisional court said.

These women, she said, were “silent and invisible”.

“If they bring cases to us, we will take action according to the law,” she said.

A female lawyer in Rangoon concurred, but added that problems were inherent in the laws themselves. She said: “Women can't enjoy the rights they deserve because of both weaknesses in our laws and because enforcement bodies – particularly the police – virtually turn a blind eye to such cases.”

The lawyer suggested that the new government would have to think of ways to provide more economic opportunities for women and increase wages and working standards in all sectors. This, she said, was also needed in the sex industry.

“In other countries, sex workers have prescribed working hours and can take legal action if their rights are violated. We have many women working in the sex trade in our own country that should enjoy the same protection. I see it is necessary and I think it is better if a new government in post-2010 can promulgate laws to better protect them,” she said.

Women in leadership

Another area that Burma underperforms in, according to the GDI, is the presence of women in leadership and political decision-making. In fact, some prominent women say, women's leadership is rare across all sectors of society.

A female industrialist working in the fisheries and aquaculture sector gave a possible reason for the disparity: “We see a few women in leadership positions because they have limited education and there are so many cultural norms and traditions working against them.”

“In our society, many people think if a girl passes 10th standard [10 years of schooling], that is enough for them – their role is just limited to housework after they marry. That kind of thinking prevents girls from stepping up and advancing their education. Men benefit from this situation in terms of power and position.”

A noted Burmese female author told Mizzima that the government had an important role to play in ensuring women enjoying equal rights with men.

“If you want women to get promoted to higher positions, you have to give them opportunities,” the author said.

It was a big problem in literary circles, where women writers and editors working in popular magazines and journals were not promoted to high positions despite being more than qualified, she said.

“Actually, women are better at attending to detail and work with more accuracy. Many research shows that women are more thorough in their work,” she explained.

A female editor from an arts journal told Mizzima: “If we look at Burma's leadership, all are men and [there are] very few women. I respect women leaders such as [former British prime minister] Margaret Thatcher and [US Secretary of State] Hilary [Rodham] Clinton. I want us to have a similar situation. I expect we will get a chance one day.”

Double discrimination

Rural women, especially women from ethnic-minority areas face double or triple doses of disadvantage that the new parliaments will be hard-pressed to properly address, exiled women's group contend.

According to a survey conducted by The Irrawaddy in September this year,less than eight per cent of the candidates in the November 7 election will be women. Targeted in attacks in a long-standing civil war, rural and indigenous women of Burma experience the most extreme forms of poverty and abuse. The Women's League of Burma (WLB) said women's poverty in these areas was caused by “military expansion, exploitation of natural resources for short-term profit and coercive agricultural policies”.

While the army confiscates land for new bases (and income-generation projects) they continue to extract forced labour from villages.

This results, WLB said, in the “extreme hardship and food insecurity that have hit women the hardest”. It went on to say that “systematic violations of human rights, including gender-based violence, by the Tatmadaw [military] in rural ethnic areas, have driven many people to become internally displaced or to flee as refugees and undocumented migrant workers to neighbouring countries.”

Women in the new parliament

Year women received right to vote: 1935
Year women received right to stand for election: 1946
Year first woman elected to parliament: 1947
Percentage of seats won by female candidates in 1990: 3%
[Source: UNDP] An alternative report to that of Cedaw, which oversees implementation of governments' women's rights agendas, was tabled by WLB in 2008. It stated that as women were excluded from military service, they were effectively barred from a quarter of all legislative positions in the Hluttaws (parliaments). It argued that the constitution “cements” the military into 25 per cent of all seats in the lower and upper houses, thereby entrenching discrimination.

In the Shan Nationalities
Democratic Party, 10 out of 157 candidates
standing for election are women.
Lway Moe Kham, secretary of the Palaung Women's Organisation, a member of the WLB, told Mizzima that she could not see how any government could do anything substantial for women in Burma. This election, she argued would result in little more than a “puppet government” of the current Burmese dictatorship.

“If an election is carried out in a democratic way – and for that it must include all groups, and be free and fair – the government must first take steps to educate women about the rights they already have, and for this awareness and acceptance [to be imparted] in the general population”.

What should Burma be doing?

According to Unifem, to address women's inequality countries must:

Educate girls and women. Educated girls tend to become women with greater economic independence. They have an increased ability to negotiate and bargain in home, community and economic life. Educated girls and women tend to participate more in public life, and they can manage natural resources in a more sustainable manner.

Overcome barriers to schooling for girls. There has been tremendous MDG focus on expanding enrolment in primary school. But these gains for girls are often lost in the transition to secondary school because of the lack of sepa rate, private and safe girls' sanitation facilities, sexual harassment or violence at, to and from school, and because of the need for curriculum reform and teacher training for higher quality schools with greater relevance to girls' lives.
Promote mechanisms that give women a voice in politics and the civil service. These mechanisms can vary widely, from proportional representation systems that increase the probability that women will be elected, to more transparent political party selection processes and public funding for campaigns.

Enact and implement equal economic rights for all. Legislation on equal pay for equal work, free choice of profession or employment, equality in hiring and promotions, leave and unemployment benefits, freedom from sexual harassment in the workplace, and other critical rights are increasingly being legislated. But weak imple mentation of these laws continues to constrain women's equality and empowerment.

Count women's work. Continued lack of political will and financial resources necessary to collect good quality data disaggregated by sex hampers the ability to make effective policies on wages, informal employment, unpaid care work, and other issues critical to women's economic participation.