RANGOON — A bill that opponents say threatens to curb women’s reproductive rights was passed by Burma’s Union Parliament on Monday, with the controversial legislation now awaiting the president’s signature before it goes into effect.
The government-run Myanma Alinn newspaper reported on Tuesday that the so-called “Population Control Bill” was approved by lawmakers during the 12th parliamentary session in Naypyidaw.
The bill contains a contested provision mandating that women wait three years between birthing children, with human rights activists and women’s advocates saying the restriction is an assault on female reproductive rights.
Deputy Attorney General Tun Tun Oo, whose office was involved in drafting the bill, told The Irrawaddy in February that the new legislation would help improve health care services for women in impoverished regions of the country.
“The bill is aimed at providing full health care services and education [for women] in poor regions. It is only for those who want to observe [rules] out of their own volition,” he said, adding: “The law carries no restrictions nor punitive actions against those do not want to obey [the birthing restriction].”
Though there do not appear to be punitive measures in place if the 36-month birth spacing requirement is violated, a coalition of civil society groups in December warned that children born not in line with the rules of the bill might be at risk of not being registered by local authorities.
Under the bill, divisional and state governments are granted the ability to request a presidential order limiting reproductive rates if it is determined that population growth, accelerating birth rates, or rising infant or maternal mortality rates are negatively impacting regional development. An “imbalance between population and resources, low socio-economic indicators and regional food insufficiency because of internal migration” can also be cited in invoking the law.
The regional government, under such circumstances, is tasked with working with undefined “experts” to make such a determination.
If the president approves the request, a “special region” is designated, triggering the law’s provisions, including the birth spacing restriction and the formation of a “delivery services body” to administer health care in coordination with the Ministry of Health.
The special region designation can be repealed if it is found to be no longer necessary.
May Sabe Phyu, director of the Gender Equality Network, told The Irrawaddy that some of the measures in the bill would make a positive contribution to Burma’s health care system, but she argued that those positive aspects—including education on family planning—should be applied nationwide and not on a selective basis.
The birth spacing restriction, she added, was inappropriate.
“It’s not necessary to limit the regions [affected by the bill]. How many [children] and when a baby is conceived depend on personal choice and it is not necessary to enact the law,” she said.
Some activists believe the Population Control Bill could also be an attempt to control Muslim majority populations in areas of northern Arakan State, where approximately one million stateless Rohingya Muslims live. In 2013, local authorities in the area tried to introduce a two-child limit in Muslim-majority areas, claiming population growth rates were too high in the impoverished region.
David Mathieson, a Burma researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch, told The Irrawaddy that the legislation “has the potential to seriously imperil women’s rights and distort genuine measures of birth control.”
“The worrying undercurrent of the law, especially stemming from the 2012 violence in Rakhine [Arakan] State and the dreadful government commission report that was produced, seems to be measures aimed at reducing the Muslim population count and the Rohingya population in particular.”
The bill was approved by Parliament’s Upper House in February and passed by the Lower House in March.
With the Union Parliament signing off on it this week, the law will go to the desk of President Thein Sein. He can sign it into law as passed on Monday, or send the legislation back to Parliament with suggestions appended.
The Population Control Bill is at the most advanced stage of the legislative process among a package of four pieces of legislation known as the “Race and Religion Protection Laws.” The other three bills would ban polygamy; create administrative hurdles to a spouse’s religious conversion; and require that couples in an interfaith relationship seek permission to marry from local authorities.
The four bills have had the vocal backing of the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (known in Burmese as Ma Ba Tha), a group of Buddhist nationalist monks that has been accused of spreading anti-Muslim hate speech and whipping up nationalist sentiment in the country.
Mathieson said passage of the bill on Monday was indicative of a transition “going in the wrong direction in so many ways.”
“It is also demonstrates the almost complete absence of political leadership across the spectrum who is willing to take a principled stand and declare these race and religion laws to be a clear threat to Burma’s stability and tolerance, so necessary in a plural and diverse society,” he said.
Additional reporting by The Irrawaddy’s Paul Vrieze.