Aye Lei Tun, La Ring and Su Su Hlaing trace the history of women’s movements in Myanmar and discusses its achievements amidst the rapidly changing economic and political context in the country and globally.
The Burmese Women’s Association, established in 1919, was the first women’s organization in Myanmar (then called British Burma) and led by the wives of officials and rich women entrepreneurs. Following in its example, many other groups, while based on religion, emerged to promote national handwoven cloth and to preserve the culture and Buddhism against colonialism. Grass-roots women found representation eventually after female farmers, workers, journalists and students joined in the independence movements, and from them emerged many female leaders. Generally during the colonial period, women who were not of the elite communities participated in few roles of prominence. Women’s rights activists (both from the grass roots and elites) raised their voices successfully for special laws granting women equal rights with men in marriage, divorce and inheritance , and they protested for the removal of the “sex disqualification clause” in the law barring women from contesting elections. Women’s organizations, like the National Council of Women in Burma (1926), extended their coalition with international women’s organizations, such the National Council of Women in India, although alignment with the Indian groups became a divisive issue during the colonial period.
In the parliamentary era (1948–1958), women’s participation in politics at last was somewhat accepted and their numbers increased. But women in leadership positions were there to maintain their husband’s or father’s status and power (sometimes taking the government position of their husband upon his death). After the military coup in 1962, the social and political movements of women across the country once again became limited. The military oppression of the many ethnic populations stimulated their political activism; however, the violence committed against the women became a point of rebellion, reducing women’s issues to their victimhood. Unlike the traditional women’s groups that formed on the basis of religion and nationalism, exiled women’s groups, largely of ethnic origin, were more progressive, even introducing the concept of “feminism” to their sisters who remained inside the country.
It is the women’s organizations formed by activists, working women and students (not those organized by elite women) who have maintained their sense of sisterhood, coordinating in advocacy and to push for the empowerment for all women. Myanmar acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1997. The Myanmar National Committee for Women’s Affairs, the leading government agency for women’s issues, drafted the National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women (2013–2022), based on the 2008 Constitution as well as the CEDAW recommendations and the 12 priority areas of the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action. Under the Strategic Plan, the National Committee for Women’s Affairs organized four working groups: i) women and participation; ii) women and peace; iii) violence against women; and iv) mainstreaming (coordinating on all issues into government policies and programming). The civil society groups working on women’s rights issues have collaborated with the National Committee for Women’s Affairs in the implementation of the Strategic Plan.
The more recent priorities of the women’s organizations in Myanmar have been to empower women’s participation in the economy and in politics. Forming women’s incomegenerating groups has been key to promoting women’s economic activities. Women’s rights activists have thus far advocated unsuccessfully for a quota system that proscribes that 30 per cent of candidates or representatives in the ongoing peace process must be women. The increase of elected women to 10.5 per cent in the 2015 general election was the highest level in history, though it was far below the number of female Parliament members or their equivalent n other South-East Asian countries.
Women’s organizations have begun engaging with men’s groups as well as with LGBT rights organizations as partners on many common issues. Activists have heavily embraced digital media, particularly social media, to raise awareness on gender equality and to stimulate activism. Nonetheless, women’s groups remain challenged by male-dominated groups seeking to protect the deeply rooted patriarchy ruling most of daily life in Myanmar.
This study is part of a series published under Political Feminism in Asia, a regional project coordinated by the FES Office for Regional Cooperation in Asia.
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