Monday, July 24, 2017

Ethnic women leaders break silence on gender discrimination

Although Myanmar’s democratic transition has become synonymous with the country’s leading lady, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar society still has many obstacles to overcome before gender equality is achieved.

Panelists discuss women’s rights at the “Gender and Culture” gathering at the Summit Parkview Hotel on May 5, 2017. Aung Htay Hlaing / The Myanmar TimesPanelists discuss women’s rights at the “Gender and Culture” gathering at the Summit Parkview Hotel on May 5, 2017. Aung Htay Hlaing / The Myanmar Times

This is especially true in ethnic territories where women face barriers unique to their customs and cultural setting. Political participation, access to resources, and sexual and gender based violence were among the topics discussed at the “Gender and Culture: Redefining Peace and Politics by Women” at the Summit Parkview Hotel on May 5.

Women from Pa-O, Chin, Kachin and Mon ethnic groups came together earlier this month to discuss issues of gender based discrimination in Myanmar and how to effectively end them.

To start, women from various ethnic organisations shared their personal stories and research.

One Pa-O woman, Nan Cho Nu Lwin explained that in Shan State, “Pa-O women have a difficult time pursuing education in Pa-O region. They [men] don’t believe in the leadership of women. Women haven’t had the chance to lead before so they think we don’t have the skills to become ones even though we do.”

Daw Hwe Kim Nyein, a woman from a Chin national group echoed a similar message.

In addition to barriers from political participation, women in Chin State are also denied the right to own property.

“Every woman is forced to do domestic chores for the whole family but they never become the heirs to their land. It’s either the younger or older brother who takes over property,” she said.

Daw Hwe Kim Nyein added that when it comes to marriage, many women are forced into arranged unions, even young girls.

“It is their custom,” she said.

Moreover, in cases of rape and sexual assault, women’s testimonies are hardly ever taken seriously. It is easier for women to stay quiet and accept a bribe of “one pig or one cow” instead of face social stigma and ostracisation.
“Chin women exchange one pig or one cow as the sum of their lives,” she said.

Bribes to stay silent in rape cases are not unique to Chin State.

Mon organiser, Daw Mi Mar Mar Aye explained that in Mon State, domestic violence survivors are coerced with cash bribes.

“If they [women] confront rape cases, they are satisfied with compensation. Mon women are dowries in their marriages. Once married, women face domestic violence...I find it is more prevalent in rich families.”

For women in the Wa ethnic region of Shan State, sexual violence and forced sex work has become routine.

A Mandalay farmer recounted that women in the region are often forced into sex work by foreign workers in the fields as other employment opportunities are rare.

“The foreign workers call women cooks from rural areas to come and do domestic work,” she said. “They don’t only want a cook but they want to have sex with these women. Women don’t accept this. But they don’t have work; they need to make a living. So they accede to these foreign workers.”

“Rural women in Myanmar lose their rights and their lives to this kind of labour,” she added.

Sex work, while illegal, is pervasive in Myanmar, according to Ma Moe Wai, the chairwoman of the Labor Union Women’s group.

Because sex work is not officially recognised, it is difficult for sex workers to gain basic human rights, especially in cases of abuse and violence.

Chairwoman Ma Moe Wai noted that garment workers, some of the lowest paid workers, are also neglected in conversations about human rights and gender equality.

“Many perpetrators are foreign leaders and the heads of garment factories,” she explained. “Some women finish working at midnight and they don’t have access to a ferry or car, so even after they leave their workplace their safety is in jeopardy just trying to get home.”

After sharing these stories of violence and discrimination, the women organisers convened to discuss the next steps.

May Sabae Phyu of the Gender Equality Network (GEN) gave the first recommendation for achieving gender equality.

“Women need to be able to participate in the peace process,” she said. “They [male leaders] do not envision increasing women’s participation. Yet our State Counsellor is a woman. They accept that women can be qualified but she cannot represent all women in Myanmar.”

Zin Mar Aung, founder of Rainfall Women’s Organization and a member of the Pyithu Hluttaw (Myanmar’s House of Representatives) said, “Generally women aren’t seen as responsible people in the political and security sector of the peace process. Women are given roles in the business or social sector. But if we are discussing politics women and men should be included in parliament. I’ve observed this process as a researcher too.”

She added, “Women members of parliament want to be able to participate in politics. They want to accurately represent the population and have a stake in our future.”