International Women's Day celebrates women’s achievements and marks a call for action for accelerating women’s empowerment. Why does this matter in Myanmar?
I started writing this Op-Ed wanting to explain to the unborn generation of children why gender equality and the empowerment of women matters in Myanmar today. It is the ingrained hope of a mother wanting to pass on a better future to her child. It is also my call for action to all involved to further advance on gender equality and the empowerment of women as we are facing an erosion of many hard-earned gains in terms of gender equality.
Myanmar’s women and girls have been hit disproportionately hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, the 1 February 2021 coup and the pursuant security, humanitarian, and socio-economic crisis. The economic downturn has led to an increasing pay gap between women and men, and women-led businesses, which are often small and micro-enterprises or in the informal sector, have struggled more to make a recovery. Access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services has been severely diminished. While reliable figures are not available, all indicators point to an increase in various forms of sexual and gender-based violence across Myanmar, while access to response services and to justice for survivors is often minimal to non-existent.
Why does gender equality matter, will you ask? “If society is like a bird with two wings, if one is broken the bird will not be able to fly” will I answer. If women, who make 52 per cent of the population are not equally represented in decision making bodies, lack equal access to basic rights, equal employment and income opportunities, and continue to face the threat of violence in their day-to-day lives, they will not be able to fully claim and exert their rights, then society will never be able to fully thrive and to use its full socio-economic potential towards a sustainable and prosperous future. Women in Myanmar have shown tremendous resilience but continue to face unequal access to productive resources, reproductive rights and suffer violence and abuse.
The multiple crises have seen an extraordinary amount of women’s engagement socially and economically, with women playing central and life-saving roles in local and community-level pandemic and humanitarian responses, often in extreme circumstances. Previously marginalized women have begun playing increasingly visible leadership roles, and the unity within the women’s movement is at an all-time high. However, all of this has come at a high cost, with individual women leaders and women’s organisations, finding themselves under-resourced, often at a risk of depletion and over-burdening, and facing increasing threats and violence both online and in real life for their outspoken and brave leadership.
The 2023 Humanitarian Response Plan reports that women have been hit disproportionately by conflict, the political and economic crisis, and their subsequent economic impacts due to social norms around work, disempowerment in the workplace and their traditional role in their households and communities. Of the 4.5 million people prioritized for life-saving humanitarian support this year, 52 per cent are women. Despite the extremely challenging circumstances, the United Nations in Myanmar together with its local partners will reach 2.3 million women and girls in humanitarian assistance covering prevention and response to gender-based violence, HIV/AIDS prevention, cash transfer and food distribution in 2023.
Undoubtedly, the multiple crises have led to an across-the-board erosion of many hard-earned gains of the past decades in terms of gender equality and women’s empowerment as the ratification of the United Nation Convention on Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) or the National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women. But as dire as the situation is in Myanmar, the continued prominence of women in all aspects of social, political, and economic life give reason for hope as well.
To halt the regression of gender equality and women’s empowerment, Myanmar women and women’s rights organisation need the urgent support of the international community, including from UN agencies, to listen to their appeals and to continue advocating on their behalf. This includes adaptive and flexible support to women’s organisations providing aid to populations in need in remote areas relying on their knowledge and networks to be able to localise and deliver aid efficiently and effectively.
A bird with two equally strong and intact wings will fly high and far towards a prosperous and sustainable future. On 8 March and beyond I, on behalf of UN Women, commit to stand for gender equality in Myanmar, today and always.
This commentary by Ms. Karin Fueg was first published on March 8, 2023, on Radio Free Asia and can be viewed here.