Women's organizations key to gender equality in Burma

In recent years, Burma has opened up to the outside world, but women are still excluded from political contexts. It is crucial for the country's continued democratic development to strengthen the rights of girls and women. Sweden should therefore increase support for the local women's organizations whose gender equality work has already led to real change, write Jenny Hedström and Johanna Kvist from the Swedish Burma Committee.

In Burma, major changes have taken place in recent years. The country has opened up to the outside world and in 2015 the first free election in over 50 years was held. But despite the democratic victory of the democratic opposition, women are still excluded from political contexts. The number of women members in Burma's parliament remains one of the lowest in Southeast Asia. At local and regional decision - making levels, there are very few women leaders and women's organizations have been excluded from the ongoing peace process. The marginalization of Burma's women is serious and worrying because their voices and perspectives are thus not heard in the important process of change that the country is now in.

The low level of female political representation is not the only problem when it comes to violations of women's rights in Burma. In the country's many conflicts, women are often particularly vulnerable when sexual violence is used as a war strategy. The UN recently released a report in which women from the Rohingya ethnic group testify about serious sexual assaults committed by the Burmese military in recent months.

The low position of women in society is clearly reflected in the absence of legislation that protects women's rights. In Burma, it is legal for a man to beat his wife, an employer can sexually harass her female employees and marital rape is only prohibited if the girl is under 14 years old. The country has the highest maternal mortality rate in Southeast Asia and women are not entitled to free abortion.

Civil society is needed in feminist foreign policy

Sweden's feminist foreign policy aims to realize the human rights of girls and women - a prerequisite for achieving the foreign policy goals of peace, security and sustainable development. Within the framework of this work, women's participation and influence in political processes must be strengthened. But to translate Sweden's feminist foreign policy into practical gender equality work, civil society is needed.

In Burma's civil society, there are several women's organizations that carry out important gender equality work. These organizations have a local knowledge that gives them high credibility with the population, something that is of great importance for gender equality work. In Burma, which is a country with many different ethnic groups and differences in social, cultural and religious norms that affect the position of women in society, this is particularly important. For example, women from certain religious and cultural groups do not have the same right to inheritance or divorce as men.

Important work at local level

In several places in the country, the work of local women's organizations has led to real change. The organizations hold local and regional politicians accountable and fight to bring the issue of gender equality on the political agenda. In the state of Kayah, the Swedish Burma Committee supports a women's organization which, together with other civil society organizations, has made the violence against women visible and thus increased the awareness of the local population about this problem. They provide sheltered housing for women and offer legal aid, something that probably would not have existed otherwise.

In 2016, the Women's League of Burma, a network of women's groups, released a report on the state's sexual violence against women. In the conflict-ridden states of Kachin and Shan in northern Burma, more than 90 cases of sexual violence by police and the military were reported between 2010-2016. The dark figure is probably large.

At the local level, in other words, extremely important work is being done for gender equality and women's rights.

Feminist foreign policy, and thus also Sweden's aid to Burma, aims to strengthen girls' and women's rights and, in the long run, increase their political representation. Therefore, Sweden and Swedish aid organizations with operations in Burma should prioritize initiatives that support local civil society. Women's organizations work on issues that are crucial to Burma's continued democratic development, but many of these groups currently lack funding. If the goal of Sweden's feminist foreign policy is to be realized in Burma, our assistance must go to the local women's organizations.

Jenny Hedström & Johanna Kvist

This is a debate article. The author is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

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