Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Women Rights in Burma I: What’s stopping them?

Sean Yau Shun Ming

Facts tell us that Burmese women constantly outnumber men at the university level, and more probably to graduate with a master degree. Culturally speaking, they also keep their own names even after marriage, not following their father’s or husband’s. They are independent by themselves. But, when the general situation in Burma is thoroughly observed, Burmese women rarely climb to the top, be that in the government, Parliament, or any other decision-making positions.

What is stopping them?

Photographed in in the Mani Sithu Market, Bagan, Burma (Jan 2014)

Direct Discrimination
Such phenomenon can be interpreted as gender discrimination. This is often reflected in job opportunities and power reservation. In Burma, boys who have completed the 10th standard in high school can join the training program, while women can only enter after graduating university. According to CEDAW Committee’s report[1], women have been receiving worse access to education opportunities. For other lucrative jobs, more men are chosen, when women are effectively disqualified based on their gender from some professions[2], military for example.

Power Totally Stripped
When it comes to acceptance to military, it means a lot. Why so? Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Prize Winner who was house arrested for years, was rejected to be in the running for the presidency in 2015, because the Constitution states that candidates must have gone through military training.

“We wanted a culture of democracy, we are trying to build a culture of democracy, and that starts with equality,” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said in this January, speaking at Burma’s first international women’s forum in Yangon[3].

Most Burmese women can do nothing but only run their own shop or food stalls on the street of Nyaung U

To secure democracy, getting to the power is almost the only way. But, so far there is only one female minister in the government - Daw Myat Myat Ohn Khin, the leader of Ministry of Social Welfare, who was only appointed in 2012. While in Parliament, less than 5% of the seats are currently held by women, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi elected in 2012. This is largely due to the absence of a  quota system that requires a certain percentage of women in Parliament and the government, which if happened, it would help women to raise their voice effectively.

Constitutional Loophole
Throughout the history, even until today, power has rested with the military party. The new Constitution in 2008 makes military experience a prerequisite to presidency, and 25% seats in the legislature are reserved for representatives appointed by the military[4].

That means, when women are excluded from the military, they are concurrently barred from the politics. Even though U Thein Sein, the President of Burma, seems to give new hopes for his quasi-civilian administration, Burmese women still remain largely excluded for the past 3 years of his presidency.

Deep-rooted Gender Inequality
‘Myanmar has always been a male-dominated Theravada Buddhist society where there are many religious and cultural barriers that limit the roles and behaviors of the women.” says Myo Kyaw Thu, a Burmese student in City University of Hong Kong. This issue can also be explained by the long lasting cultural notion. “All these norms and beliefs have been deeply rooted... It is not that easy to break these boundaries...”

There is an old saying of advice to mothers in Burma: “Treat your son like a lord and your husband like a god.” Such stereotype stems from Buddhism, the main religion in Burma which gives the idea that women should play a subordinate role to men. While the civil wars have left them vulnerable to forced labor and sexual abuse, schooling has been brainwashing pupils as well, which eventually has led to a high drop-out rate for women, largely due to the need to supplement their families.

When it comes to the survival of their family, they can never be in the position of power in the society.

Laws Not Protective But Discriminatory
Burmese legal system comprises Customary Law, Statutory Law and judicial decision(i.e. follow the decision of precedent cases if facts are similar), with the new Constitution put forth in 2008.

So how protective are the laws in Burma?

Article 352 in the Constitution stipulates that it allows the government to appoint men to positions that are “suitable for men only”. The Constitution is discriminatory by itself in that it does not ensure equal representation of women within the legislative, executive and judicial branches, as analysed in Burma Human Rights Yearbook 2008.

As mentioned above, women can never run for presidency unless they have been to the military, which excludes women, while presidency election also forbids people with foreign spouses(as stated in the 2008 Constitution). Therefore, Aung San Suu Kyi clearly cannot be elected. But, president Thein Sein recently showed his support to allow any citizen to run for presidency in 2015 election by reviewing the Constitution. It all looks good until it is realised that the the change of the provision needs more than 75% of approval in the legislature[5], while 25% of the seats are reserved by the military.

The roles Burmese women play in the community reflect the much weaker position they are in today.

Fall Foul of International Standard
Unlike other countries, Burma did not sign and ratify international covenants that protect human rights or gender inequality like ICCPR. However, Burma belongs to one of the state parties to the UN Charter and is bound to promote “universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”

Even though Burma has become a signatory of the CEDAW[6] convention since 1997(without signing Optimal Protocol) and admitted that women in Burma are discriminated against, the new Constitution in 2008 does not contain provisions to deal with direct or indirect discrimination. In fact, CEDAW Committee once expressed concerns that Burma’s 2008 Constitution is incompatible with CEDAW convention and customary laws discriminate against women, especially those from ethnic groups. “It is just on the paper and does not really reflect the reality.” Myo says.

Myinkaba Village, Bagan

A Long Way to Go
For Burmese women to get to the positions of power, there is still a long way to go. Changing the laws is one way. Aside from that, it definitely depends on how determined they are to fight for their rights and status, instead of limiting themselves to the stereotyped culture.

[2] Burma Human Righta Yearbook, available on http://www.burmalibrary.org/docs08/HRDU_YB-2008/pdf/women.pdf
[3] At women’s forum in Yangon, Jan 2014
[4] Burma new Constitution in 2008
[5] Myanmar’s Constitutional Reform, The New York Times, 1 Jan 2014
[6] Convention on the Elimination of All Form of Discrimination against Women

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