Burma’s Women Are Still Fighting for Their Rights

The country's most famous politician may be a woman, but Burma remains firmly in the grip of patriarchy.

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On June 25, the Burmese parliament voted on six proposed constitutional amendments, five of which it rejected. Most notably, lawmakers vetoed a proposed change that would have allowed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to assume the country’s highest office. The current constitution, drawn up in 2008 under the military junta then in power, bars from the presidency anyone who has shown “allegiance to a foreign power” (a measure clearly targeting Suu Kyi, who was married to a British citizen and has two British children). The current and former military officers who dominate parliament clearly don’t want to cede any ground to the enormously popular Nobel Peace Prize laureate and her movement. But there may be another reason why they feel threatened by Suu Kyi: her gender.

“Many people say that Burmese women are perfectly equal in society – it’s not true,” Suu Kyi herself once observed. “Women are underrepresented in the government.” She’s certainly right about that. Start with the fact that the country’s ruling elite has been fighting the leader of the pro-democracy opposition, who happens to be a woman, since 1988. As for the ruling elite, it comes almost exclusively from the senior ranks of the military, meaning that it is entirely male.

Throughout Burma’s modern political history the real influence of women has been minimal. While the 2008 constitution does contain a few broad statements about gender equality (stipulating, for example, that women and men should receive equal pay for equal work), it also expresses sentiments that clearly run counter to that principle. Most notably, it specifies that presidential candidates must have “military vision” — a provision that effectively excludes women, since they are non-existent in the senior ranks of the armed forces.

Has anything changed for the better since reformist President Thein Sein took office four years ago? Khin Lay, director of the Triangle Women Support Group, says that, while the recent period of liberalization has given “more space for discussion of gender equality and women’s rights,” there has been little in the way of concrete change beyond that. Even though women make up slightly more than half of Burma’s population of 51 million, she says, this has been outweighed by the fact that generals have ruled the country for more than half a century.

This dismal state of affairs is reflected by the number of women in the Burmese legislature. Of 580 current members of the national assembly, just 28 are women. There are only two women among the 36 members of President Thein Sein’s cabinet. Before the April 2012 by-elections, when the government allowed a genuinely competitive vote for a handful of parliamentary seats, the number of women in the assembly was even lower than it is now. The remarkable victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, brought a fresh influx of female lawmakers.

“There are 26 million women in Burma,” said Cherry Zahau, a well-known women’s rights activist. “So it doesn’t make much sense that they’re are represented by such a tiny group of female legislators.” Burma, she said, cannot ignore the needs, voices, or aspirations of half of the population. She wants to see far-reaching institutional reform to ensure the environment of better gender equality. “We need to start with laws that guarantee women’s participation at all levels, from the national assembly to local governments.”

Women and gender rights organizations have been developing rapidly since the end of direct military rule in 2011, when the government loosened restrictions on the establishment of civic organizations. Now there are dozens of women’s groups, some of them actively campaigning for legal reforms to ensure gender equality.

“The problem is our place in politics and the leadership,” said Pyo Let Han, a feminist writer in Rangoon. “Culturally, a country dominated by the military will always look down on women. Men dominate. They always think that we’re not ready for leadership.” She noted that military officers and ruling party politicians often attack Suu Kyi as “the foreigner’s wife” or sneer at her “fancy dress, flowers, and perfume” – all too characteristic, said Pyo Let Han, of the “sexist responses” that women politicians and activists often experience.

In some ways, one could argue that the patriarchal political system merely reflects the biases of traditional Burmese society. “If the hen crows, there won’t be a rosy dawn,” says one old proverb. “A woman can bring a whole country to collapse,” goes another. (The country’s leaders, it should be noted, have used both sayings against Suu Kyi over the past two decades.) In practice, despite constitutional assurances to the contrary, women earn far less than men for the same jobs – especially in the agriculture sector, where the overwhelming majority of people are employed. Maternity leave is rarely a given. Women have to get higher scores than men on high school examinations in order to gain admission to university.

A key challenge for women, particularly those from the country’s myriad ethnic minorities, is the six-decade-long civil war between the central government and the ethnic armed groups. Thirteen years ago, the Thailand-based Shan Women’s Action Network issued the first report on acts of sexual violence committed by the Burmese military in the course of the conflict. The report documented 175 cases in which 625 Shan women were raped or sexually abused by government troops during five years of war, from 1996 to 2001, in Shan State along the country’s eastern border.

Yet there have also been more recent cases. In January 2015, local and international media reported the story of two ethnic Kachin volunteer teachers in their early twenties who were raped and murdered in an area where the Burmese military is at war with the Kachin Independence Army. No one has ever been charged in the killings. The army has strenuously denied that any of its troops were involved, even warning that it will take legal action against anyone who attempts to report on the case.

Needless to say, such a statement has the effect of fostering a culture of impunity, encouraging further excesses in the conflict zone. A few weeks later came another report of an alleged sexual assault by a government soldier, who was said to have been caught attempting to rape a 72-year-old Kachin woman.

“Women are at risk here,” said Khin Lay of Triangle Women Group. “We’re victims of armed conflict. If no one is prosecuted for raping women during the fighting, it means that Burmese women can be used as weapons of war.” This, she said, raises the question of whether the government is tacitly approving the use of sexual violence in war as a matter of policy. She and her group are demanding an official inquiry into this issue question. But it will probably be hard to find answers as long as the war continues.

Another complicating factor for women has been the recent rise of ultranationalist Buddhist movements prompted by sectarian conflict involving the Rohingya, Muslim minority in Rakhine State. Under the banner of “safeguarding the national race and religion,” the nationalists, led by radical Buddhist monks, have pressed lawmakers to approve bills banning the marriage of Buddhist women to men of other faiths and changing other aspects of family law to block the mingling of different religious groups. “These laws target women,” says Pyo Let Han. “Why can’t women marry anyone they want? Is the state implying that Burmese women aren’t smart enough to make decisions about their own personal affairs?”

A so-called “monogamy law,” aimed at preventing men from having more than one wife, sounds relatively progressive on the face of things. “But it’s actually a threat to women’s rights,” says lawyer Ami Sungthluai, who says that it curtails women’s rights to ask for and obtain a divorce – a major problem in a society in which men already have such all-pervasive influence. Women activists who are opposed to the laws say they’ve received death threats from ultra-nationalists – and that the police refuse to act when they complain.

Activists clearly have reason to worry that the assault on women’s rights will intensify as Burma gets closer to this fall’s general election. Let’s hope that Burma’s women can find a way to fight back.

(The photo above shows a female inmate leaving Insein Prison after a presidential pardon in January 2014.)

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Wai Moe is a former Burmese political prisoner turned journalist. He has worked for the Irrawaddy and, since 2012, as a stringer for the New York Times.