Women’s organizations in Myanmar celebrated International Women’s Day on Tuesday with festivities in the commercial capital Yangon and major towns in war-ravaged states, as the country’s most prominent female politician Aung San Suu Kyi and her party prepared to submit nominations for the nation’s top office.
The Women’s Organization Network (WON), a collection of 30 organizations that support women’s groups across the country, held a fair in a public square in Yangon to draw attention to gender equality and women’s rights issues.
The Rakhine Women’s Association held a ceremony making international Women’s Day in Sittwe, capital of western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, while the Shan (North) Women’s Network hosted a ceremony and discussion on women’s issues in Lashio, the largest town in northern Myanmar’s Shan state.
“We, women from northern Shan State, have discussed how we can collaborate in the peace-making process,” said Ae May, organizer of the celebration in Lashio, where frequent clashes between Myanmar’s military and the ethnic Shan State Army-North (SSA-N) late last year included the abductions of villagers and air raids and ground attacks that forced them to flee their homes.
The International Women’s Day celebrations come as Myanmar’s most prominent woman—Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) party won last November’s elections by a landslide—is about to nominate along with her party candidates for vice president and president on Thursday.
Myanmar’s parliament will vote on the nominees, and the winner will become president, while the two runners-up will become vice presidents.
Although Aung San Suu Kyi is the NLD’s chairwoman, she cannot become president because the constitution drafted by the military in 2008 bans anyone with close foreign relatives from attaining the nation’s highest office.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s two sons are British nationals, as was her late husband.
More women than men
Even though Myanmar has made significant strides in its progress towards democracy, which many believe will pick up under the pro-democracy NLD government, a profound gender gap still exists in the socially conservative, male-dominated country where women account for 51.8 percent of Myanmar’s population of 51.5 million, according to the United Nations Population Fund.
“We have more women than men in our country,” Khin Lay, director of Triangle Women’s Support Group, told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Tuesday. “To represent women’s voices, women who are facing difficulties must participate in discussions about their experiences. If they do, there will be smoother situation for building new country and we will get good standard of reforms during the [political] transition period.”
The New York-based Global Justice Center, a nongovernmental organization devoted to protecting human rights and gender equity, points out that true political participation requires a significant number of women in all areas of governance in Myanmar, including cease-fire and peace treaty negotiations, constitution drafting committees, political parties, executive branch appointments and elected positions.
At present, there are only 64 female deputies in the National Assembly, representing 9.7 percent of a total of 657 seats in both houses, including the 25 percent that automatically goes to military officers, according to the Myanmar Times.
Yet, women are excluded from many top political offices and not admitted into active military service.
“We still have boundaries in culture and tradition for women,” Lei Lei Win Mar, a Yangon resident told RFA. “People still think the way that woman must not lead, but follow.”
Little has changed
Myanmar signed the U.N.’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1997, but little has changed in this area, said Khin Ohmar, coordinator of Burma Partnership, a coalition advocating democracy in Myanmar.
“We haven’t seen anything that the government has done to protect women rights since 1997,” she said. “If the NLD government could implement the protection women rights as a member of the CEDAW, women’s lives in Myanmar would get better.”
Just before International Women’s Day, CEDAW issued a statement on March 4, calling attention to the need to protect and promote the rights of rural women, who account for a quarter of the world’s population.
About 70 percent of Myanmar’s population resides rural areas, according to the United Nations Population Fund.
“In many countries, [rural women’s and girls’] specific needs are not adequately addressed in laws, national and local policies and budgets,” the statement said. “They remain excluded from leadership and decision-making positions at all levels, are disproportionally affected by negative stereotypes, gender-based violence and insufficient access to basic social services and resources.”
Women from ethnic minority groups such as those in Rakhine and Shan states where hostilities have ensued between the government army and ethnic militias, or between various armed ethnic groups themselves, are particularly at risk for rape and sexual violence, women’s groups say.
Although the military ruled Myanmar for nearly 50 years until 2011, it has continued to occupy a powerful position in government and society under the quasi-military administration of Thein Sein and his Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
“Not only according to law, but also because of the situation in communities, we are still far away from secure and safe lives, Tin Tin Thwe, an ethnic Rakhine woman, told RFA. “We still have domestic violence and rape cases around the country.”