Before the British occupation of Burma (1824-1928), Burma was a matriarchal society. Women held a high status, they were the inheritors of oil wells, chiefs of villages, and could become queens. Only after the British occupation ended and the country’s economic situation deteriorated that women’s rights and their social status become second to men’s. Some reports attribute this to the increase of the man’s right to limited resources combined with the mothers inherent trait to consistently put her children’s needs before her own. This led to a decrease in education, medical services and poor nutrition for women. The traditional ethnic communities in Burma are male-dominated and from an early age, boys are socialized into gender roles designed to keep men in power and in control. In a Gender Inequality Index published by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in 2013, Burma ranked 80th on a list of 186 countries. The index was based on women’s achievements in reproductive health, empowerment and the labor market.
Education: Myanmar has reached gender parity in education with girls accounting for 49%, 50% and 53% of total primary, lower and upper secondary school enrollments in school year 2010-11. While there exists a marginally larger share of girls aged 10-15 is in secondary school, the share of girls’ dropout-of-school is also slightly higher than boys. Girls’ access to education is strongly affected by constraints arising from their social class, ethnicity, and linguistic background or whether they come from rural or urban locations. While education data are limited, there is at least some evidence to suggest that distance to schools, language of instruction, gender stereotypes and lack of gender sensitive and locally relevant curricula and teaching methods and a lack of qualified teachers in remote areas pose obstacles for girls and boys attaining an education. In addition, while females outnumber males in post-secondary education, their labour force participation remains very low. This indicates a mismatch of skills attained and labour market needs, as well as gender discrimination in types of study based on cultural stereotypes related to types of skills /occupations suitable for women.
Labour Market Participation: In Burma, 75 percent of women aged 15 and older are engaged in the labor market, either working or actively looking for work, compared with 82 percent of men, according to the Gender Inequality Index Report, 2013. About the same percentage of women and men had completed at least secondary education, at 18 percent and 17 percent respectively. But only about 5 percent of seats in Parliament are held by women, among the lowest scores in the index. A wide gap remains between men and women in the higher ranks of paid employment, with women concentrated in lower ranks and less-skilled jobs. Women comprise about half of all staff in state administrative organizations and ministries, but they are concentrated in lower positions. Despite laws requiring equal pay for men and women, disparities in wages remain. Women provide unpaid, largely “invisible” and unrecognized work at home in addition to their paid work in the public sphere. Many women from Myanmar migrate to neighboring countries in search of better-paying jobs. However, most of them end up as less-skilled industrial, agricultural, or domestic workers, often in exploitative workplaces (including those where they are at risk of sexual exploitation).
Health: Myanmar has a high maternal mortality ratio (240 deaths per 100,000 live births). Postpartum hemorrhage, eclampsia, and complications from unsafe abortions are the leading causes of maternal deaths, according to the government’s 2006–2011 National Health Plan. Although abortion is illegal in Myanmar, nearly 10% of all maternal deaths are abortion-related because the procedure is often undertaken by untrained attendants. In addition, there is about a 20% unmet need for contraception among married women, which may also contribute to abortions. Variations in figures are found in terms of the women in rural and urban areas access to prenatal care and a skilled birth attendant. Most of the deliveries take place at home, where nearly 90% of maternal deaths occur. A large majority of deaths occur in rural areas, where issues of access, road conditions, poverty, and inadequate health facilities are contributing factors.
Myanmar also has a high adolescent fertility rate mainly because of the lack of sex education. Myanmar has the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS after Thailand in Southeast Asia, and an increasing number of women are contracting HIV. Women’s vulnerability to HIV is increased by the high-risk behavior of their spouses or partners, as well as their inability to negotiate safe sexual practices. Mother-to-child transmission accounts for nearly 3% of new HIV infections. A report on gender and HIV in Myanmar noted several factors that may limit women’s access to HIV services: their lower status in the household, lower literacy rate, less access to health information, and exclusion from decision making on household health action and expenditures, as well as the stigma and fear of being ostracized by the community.
Women are highly affected by poor access to quality water and sanitation facilities as they are primarily responsible for tasks related to household water and sanitation, and taking care of children who become sick from waterborne diseases. Women also suffer the most from lack of access to electricity, primarily because of the high economic and health costs associated with using biomass sources of energy. As a result, women need to spend significant amounts of time each day transporting fuel, and cooking often takes longer.
Gender Violence: Inequalities between men and women in Burmese society encompass a wide range of human rights violations, including sexual abuse of children, rape, domestic violence, sexual assault and harassment, and trafficking of women and girls. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women expressed concern over widespread gender violence which appears to be accompanied by a culture of silence and impunity. Myanmar does not have specific legislation against gender-based violence, although there are penal code provisions against sexual assault and rape. Public awareness of the issue is low. Traditional cultural beliefs, the low social value of women, women’s lack of knowledge about their rights, and insufficient support services (for example, legal, health, counseling, and shelter) collude to ensure that cases are under-reported and settled out of court. Human trafficking is another serious challenge. For sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, and forced labor, women, children, and men from Myanmar are trafficked to other countries in the region.
These are some of the key issues of gender disparity in Myanmar. Because women have been subject to discrimination for generations, it’s become ingrained into the culture and way of thinking of both the men and women to accept that women are second to men and should remain at home. The problem is not as simple as changing laws and promoting women’s rights. For gender equality in Burma to become a reality the solution requires multiple approaches. It requires from creative and gentle grass-roots approach to Government and Civil society’s active participation to deal with the issue of Gender Disparity in Myanmar.