The Burmese military regime (State Peace and Development Council or SPDC) signed CEDAW in 1997. Its initial report to the CEDAW Committee in 1999 was reviewed at the 22nd CEDAW Session. The delegation was headed by a man. In 2007, the SPDC sent its combined second and third periodical report.
Definition of Discrimination, Law, Policy and Measures to Implement the CEDAW Convention (Articles 1, 2 and 3)
There is no evidence in its 2007 report that the SPDC understands the definition of gender discrimination and the purpose of the CEDAW. The SPDC asserts that discrimination does not occur in Burma, because women are possessed of full rights from before birth. Its continuing refusal to recognize the serious and systemic gender discrimination occurring within the country makes highly unlikely that the SPDC will enact, in good faith, programs and policies capable of eliminating discrimination and promoting women’s equality.
Women in Burma do not enjoy an effective constitutional guarantee of substantive equality. The regime’s recently approved constitutional provisions not only fail to effectively promote gender equality, but guarantee that the armed forces, an almost exclusively male institution, will control a quarter of seats in the lower and upper houses of the legislature. At the same time, the SPDC has failed to introduce temporary special measures that would assist women in realizing equality.
There is no indication that the country’s laws have been revised to address direct and indirect discrimination or that the CEDAW and its principles have been incorporated into domestic legislation. In terms of family law, there is a plethora of customary laws still utilized by Burman and non-Burman ethnic groups concerning marriage, adoption, property ownership and inheritance rights. Many of these laws emphasize women’s roles as childbearers and home-makers while giving men greater economic and decision-making power in domestic affairs.
The institutional mechanisms for addressing gender discrimination in Burma are extremely limited. The national women’s machinery is comprised of regime’s organized NGOs (GONGOs), whose leaders are wives of SPDC commanders. They are forced to promote the regime’s policies, and are prevented from taking a rights- or empowerment- based approach.
Sex Roles and Stereotyping (Article 5)
The SPDC report makes clear that the regime has little understanding of destructive social stereotyping. Its public messages promoting traditional values consistently and actively reinforce women’s inferior position in Burmese society, depicting women’s abilities as limited and their activities as accordingly curtailed. Hiri and ottapa (moral shame and moral fear of repercussions), terms cited in the SPDC’s report as cultural obligations of Burmese women, are considered in Theravada Buddhism to be the “twin guardians” of morality. Normally, in Buddhist teachings, these precepts apply equally to men and women, but in the SPDC’s messaging, they have been used in inculcate images of the ideal “good woman” who is modest in her deportment and obedient in serving her husband and relatives.
The face of public life in Burma is male, in large part because the culture of Burma today is profoundly militarized. The military presence pervades every village, town and city, every branch and level of its administration, and every situation involving power and status.
Trafficking (Article 6)
The SPDC’s policies, namely economic mismanagement, prioritization of military expenditure, and neglect of social services, have caused increasing migration, which, together with state restrictions on movement and access to information, has led to an increase in trafficking of women and girls from Burma. Instead of addressing these root causes of the trafficking problem, the SPDC has introduced measures that have placed more restrictions on the movement of women and girls, and led to increased extortion and unjust arrests by local authorities. Innocent people have been arrested on false trafficking charges, particularly after the enactment of the new 2005 Anti-Trafficking Law.
Education (Article 10)
The education sector has been seriously neglected by the state, with education funding amounting to only 1.3% of the GDP. There is a serious shortage of schools, trained teachers, and educational supplies, particularly in rural and conflict-affected areas; and corruption has become rife among teachers. While education standards have declined, school costs have risen sharply, causing a high drop-out rate. Owing to prevalent gender attitudes, sons’ education is prioritized over daughters’, and girls commonly leave school to help support their families, or do part-time jobs while studying.
While the SPDC has been neglecting the education needs of the general public, they have been investing in their own military educational institutions, thereby creating an educational system that privileges military personnel. The regime has also used the school system as a tool to maintain power. Teachers are indoctrinated to be loyal to the state, and prevent and suppress student unrest. The school curriculum has also been developed to instill acceptance of the military system.
Health (Article 12)
Similarly, the health sector is grossly under funded by the state, receiving under 3% of the national budget. The state health care system in Burma is almost non-existent, and there is an acute shortage of medicine, medical facilities and supplies, and very few trained health staff. Today, deaths from infectious diseases, malnutrition, and maternal causes continue to prematurely claim the lives of many Burmese, deaths that are largely preventable. Women and children are bearing the brunt of the collapse of the health system, especially in the conflict zones of eastern Burma, where almost a quarter of children will die before age five, and one in twelve women will lose her life as a result of pregnancy-related causes; these health indicators are amongst the worst in the world.
Despite UNAIDS describing the HIV/AIDS situation in Burma as “one of the most serious epidemics in Southeast Asia”, the regime has failed to commit significant resources to addressing the epidemic, and most glaringly, failed to submit a country progress report to the High-Level Meeting of the UN General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS, held on 10-11 June 2008.
The SPDC has imposed increasing restrictions on UN agencies and international NGOs working inside Burma. Community health initiatives have also been shut down or severely curtailed. In their place, the regime has mobilized GONGOs to provide social services, largely for publicity purposes. These organizations include groups such as the Myanmar Women’s Affairs Federation (MWAF), the Myanmar Maternal and Child Welfare Association (MMCWA), and the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA).
Rural women (Article 14)
Rural populations in Burma, particularly women and girls, continue to suffer from extreme poverty, because of the regime’s prioritization of military expansion, exploitation of natural resources for short-term profit, and coercive agricultural policies. There has been increased confiscation of land for military bases and income-generation projects, and continued use of civilians as forced labour to build and maintain the bases. Resource extraction is being conducted without proper environmental and safety regulations and with no benefit for local peoples. The regime’s authoritarian agricultural policies, including forcing people nationwide to plant Jatropha curcas for biofuel production, have caused widespread hardship and food insecurity. State drug eradication programs, involving the banning of opium growing without substitution of sustainable alternatives, have also led to largescale food shortages and migration.
The systematic violation of human rights, including gender-based violence, by the SPDC in the rural ethnic areas, have driven many people to become internally displaced, or to flee as refugees and undocumented migrant workers to neighbouring countries.
General Recommendation 19: Violence Against Women
Women in Burma are facing violence at every level, not only because of historical gender discrimination, but as a direct result of military rule and the lack of rule of law. They are suffering from violence committed by family members, by the community and in particular by the State, without recourse to redress. Because of the regime’s failure to acknowledge discrimination and violence against women, there is now a climate of impunity for military rape; people in authority, particular in the SPDC army, routinely commit discriminatory and violent acts without remorse. There is mounting evidence of military rape against women and girls, particularly those in ethnic areas. In order to cover up their crimes, SPDC personnel use threats, intimidation and punishment to obtain false testimonies and statements from local community members, witnesses and even rape survivors. People are commonly threatened not to talk to outsiders, including personnel from UN agencies.