The frequent assertion that women in Myanmar enjoy relatively equal status to men was clearly exposed as nonsense this week when the Asian Barometer Survey (ABS) reported that 60 percent of respondents said they would prefer to have a boy child rather than a girl – a level of gender bias around double that reported in neighbouring ASEAN countries.
Meanwhile, the same survey found that just 58pc of respondents support women’s equal involvement in politics, a figure that falls to 45pc among those who favour U Thein Sein as president. Even among those who said they would like Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to be president – an ambition unlikely to be achieved any time soon – nearly one-quarter (24pc) disagreed that women should be involved in politics as much as men.
“The Lady” may make an attractive democracy icon for the world’s media and – as the ABS findings back up – remains highly popular in her homeland. But the survey suggests a lot of people would probably like her even better if she were “The Gentleman”. The preference for boy children, along with a high level of negative attitudes toward women in politics reported by ABS, went relatively unnoticed amid the general excitement at getting any kind of statistical information on social and political attitudes in a country where such data is in short supply.
Certainly some of the other findings by the Taiwan-based organisation, which polled more than 1600 people across 14 states and regions, have worrying implications for democratic progress – including the high support for citizenship being tied to religion (61pc of respondents “strongly agreeing”) and the apparently even split between those supporting continued military involvement in the government (40pc against, 39pc saying that they are in favour).
But the fundamental bias against girls is of massive concern. Girls in cultures that favour boy children are denied fair access to education, and to social and political opportunities, which robs a country of potentially vital contributors to its future. They are also, from infancy, more likely to be underfed and deprived of healthcare than their male siblings, posing long-term health risks not only for the individual girls involved, but also for their children and future generations.
The study shows that Myanmar lags far behind other ASEAN countries when it comes to gender bias against girls. In Myanmar 60pc of respondents said that if they could only have one child they would prefer having a boy over a girl. That compares with 40pc in Philippines, 33pc in Indonesia, 31pc in Thailand, 30pc in Cambodia and 27pc in Vietnam.
It should also be noted that even when parents express preference for a girl child, it does not always indicate that they consider female children equal. It can often be due to parents wanting a child who will carry out household duties traditionally assigned to females. So the 40pc of respondents who expressed no preference, or favoured girl children, were not necessarily champions of gender equality.
According to Bridget Welsh of the ABS, “The equal participation of women in politics compared to men is lower than other countries in East Asia, and preference for a boy is much higher – so the cross-comparative perspective shows higher obstacles for women here.”
The common perception that women have a reasonable degree of equality in Myanmar is at least partly due to findings in other studies that report a relatively high number of women in business. This is seen as giving women a degree of status and self-sufficiency over income.
However, the small scale of most of these enterprises is often not acknowledged, nor are the findings set in the context of the very low number of women in influential positions in business and government.
Just because women have the opportunity to run a roadside stall or vote for the daughter of a general does not mean they have equality with men in status or rights.
The claim that women in Myanmar somehow have higher status or greater equality than women elsewhere in the region needs to be recognised as a dangerous myth. The sooner that is accepted, the sooner moves can be made to address the very real problems created for the whole of society by the deep-seated gender bias and discrimination far too many women face from birth.