Throughout Myanmar’s modern political history, activists have consistently complained that women’s rights have been stifled and their influence on politics and power reduced to almost none. The country, which is still emerging from over 50 years of military dictatorship, has a long track record of human rights violations. Women have borne the brunt of the abuse, including sexual violence, forced labor, slavery and trafficking. Internal conflicts between different ethnic states proliferated during military rule, leaving large swathes of the country under rebel control, with women in those areas particularly vulnerable to abuses carried out by armies on both sides.
Since the end of military rule in 2010, women and gender rights organizations have been rapidly developing as government restrictions on advocacy groups are lifted. But women remain underrepresented in government and often are still expected to conform to traditional gender roles.
On a recent research trip to Myanmar, Jenny Hedström, gender adviser for the NGO Fortify Rights, visited women’s organizations in Kayah State on the border with Thailand and Shan State on the border with China, where she met community activists and talked to some of the ethnic armies. She says that while women and girls in Myanmar face many obstacles, including gender-based violence (GBV), a lack of access to formal power, and social and economic exclusion, they are fighting back by forming groups and community organizations to offer services that the state has denied them.
Currently working on a PhD exploring the relationship between gender and conflict in northern Myanmar, Hedström spoke to Women & Girls about the value of rights groups working across the border with Thailand and the irony that, as communities in Myanmar do more work to strengthen women’s rights, the government does less.
Women & Girls: What is the overall situation for women in Myanmar today?
Jenny Hedström: Whether you are in a cease-fire area or a conflict area, the key thing is the lack of the rule of law and the lack of a legal framework that addresses and prevents discrimination and gender-based violence. Years of regional conflict and ethnic divisions means the central government still has limited influence in many areas. This, coupled with decades of entrenched militarization, means women are and have been excluded from decision-making processes. This marginalizes their voices and ability to call for redress, making them more vulnerable to experience sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), in effect creating an environment of impunity.
Women & Girls: What specific issues do women face there?
Hedström: It ranges right across the spectrum, starting with SGBV at the hands of the military to intimate partner violence, a lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services and a lack of sanitary products, particularly in areas affected by conflict or in IDP camps. There is also a lot of social and economic discrimination against women. I’ve also heard of a rise in child marriage in conflict-affected parts of the country, and increased trafficking of women to China.
Women & Girls: How are women responding to their situation?
Hedström: What is really exciting to see is women are responding to the insecurities they and their communities face in really imaginative and innovative ways. For example, in Kayah State, in cease-fire areas, women are doing incredible work stepping into the vacuum left by the state. They are providing shelters for other women, starting education initiatives, creating referral pathways for survivors of SGBV and holding discussions with local politicians and leaders to constantly improve the situation for women in the area.
Women & Girls: How is the situation changing?
Hedström: For years, we have seen women’s groups run by exiles from Myanmar in Thailand working very effectively to train women and empower them before sending them back into their communities in Myanmar to bring about change. The difference now is some of these groups can operate more freely within Myanmar as long as they are careful to distance themselves from politics and stick to working on women’s issues, which is seen to be non-controversial. The problem is a lot of funding is moving away from border-based groups now the country has opened up, even though they continue to provide essential services for communities in Myanmar.
Women & Girls: Are people waking up to the fact that women have rights that need addressing?
Hedström: Yes and no. What is really positive is you have this new generation of women who will make change in Myanmar. But on the other hand, you have these huge obstacles that have to be addressed. Years of military rule means democracy will not happen overnight. Attitudes are extremely entrenched and it could take decades for them to change. Also, the more roles women take on, the less responsibility the state takes, and the less impetus there is for change.
Women & Girls: Is there much interest at a government level for improving women’s rights in Myanmar?
Hedström: The state is not really addressing it at all. There are plenty of female MPs and women rights’ groups lobbying the government, and who have been trying to do really important things, but the government doesn’t have the institutions in place or the political will in place to make it happen. There are some really fantastic women’s groups and networks, like GEN (Gender Equality Network), who have drafted very comprehensive legislation to address SGBV – for instance the Prevention of Violence Against Women law – but it has been stuck at a government level for years.
Women & Girls: Are women putting themselves in danger by speaking out about their rights or demanding change?
Hedström: What you often see in a lot of the communities I have visited is women are leading campaigns for change on all sorts of issues like land grab and education rights or environment issues, which can be extremely dangerous. Many of them take enormous risks to challenge the system or stand up for the rights of their communities, and many of them face arrest and detention as a result of that.
However, it is not an entirely negative picture. There are some really good things happening, particularly at a community level. And if these women can continue to do the work they are doing, there is real reason to feel optimistic.