Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘We Have Mountains of Difficulties in Promoting Gender Equality’

By The Irrawaddy 11 March 2017

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. This week, on the occasion of International Women’s Day, we’ll discuss the role of women in Burma. Daw Khin Lay, director of Triangle Women’s Support Group, and singer U Mun Awng will join me for the discussion. I’m The Irrawaddy’s Burmese editor Ye Ni.

Our country has shifted from a male-dominated military dictatorship to a democratic government led by a woman, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Daw Khin Lay, in this shift, how big of an opportunity do you see in adopting international norms and values such as gender equality and the participation of women in the decision-making process in our country?

Khin Lay: I would like to point out the positive changes in the way we celebrate International Women’s Day this year compared with previous years’ celebrations. Ministries cooperated with us in celebrating International Women’s Day in previous years. But their cooperation was shallow, and they were not willing to support us. Ministry officials cooperated just to give a false impression to the international community.

But this year, things are different. The Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement is the ministry that is directly responsible for women. The minister took a leading role [in the celebration] with a passionate commitment to positive change. We can see in this a positive change that government departments no longer organize such events just for show but instead are seriously committed. Particularly, both male and female staff members of the Social Welfare Department, which has to engage with women, willingly cooperated with civil society organizations (CSOs). We should gladly welcome their strong desire to bring about positive mechanisms for women.

But as for gender equality, which Ko Ye Ni has mentioned, there are still plenty of challenges in our country. We have mountains of difficulties in promoting gender equality. As everyone knows, we have just shifted from decades of military rule, in which [gender] equality and [women’s] rights were not words we could mention, to the current era in which [women] are speaking out loudly [for their rights]. So, I have found that some leaders are not yet ready for this. We don’t blame them. Because we lived under a bad system, not everybody would bother learning about those things.

But our country has opened up and CSOs, especially women’s organizations and human rights activists, have opportunities to learn. As international scholars come here, we have a chance to learn from them, and as we attend international events, workshops, and training, we can learn what actions are being carried out in other countries for gender equality and women’s rights.

We are now able to adopt practices that are suitable for our culture and customs, and we have gained more knowledge. But on the other hand, we are still faced with conservative beliefs. And the education system has not changed at all. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to promote women’s rights. Again, one of the biggest challenges is financial support. When we talk about gender equality and women’s rights, we lobby the lawmakers to change policies and laws.

Even if some laws are changed because of our lobbying or active cooperation from ministries and parliament, if they are not effectively enforced, laws will just exist on paper. The State Counselor also pointed this out at the talks [with business leaders in Naypyidaw on Monday].

YN: You said women now have the chance to lobby [the government for their rights]. This year, Women’s Week is celebrated not only in Naypyidaw, but also in Rangoon, Mandalay and Moulmein. As far as I understand, these events intend to raise awareness about gender equality.

On March 8, both of you will be singing at Thakhin Mya Park [in Rangoon] to raise public awareness about women’s rights. Ko Mun Awng, men including you are participating in International Women’s Day, which is a women’s event. Why do you think men should unite with women in their call for women’s rights?

Mun Awng: Men should understand that women should enjoy those rights. In my eyes, men and women are equal. Men should not think that they are superior. If we don’t understand women’s rights, it will be difficult to maintain harmony with them because we have to co-exist in society. So, men should have an understanding of women.

As a man, I would like to say that women are also humans like us except they are physically different. They also have hearts and emotions. We men should understand this. In a home, if there is no harmony between husband and wife, it is difficult to create a balanced family. In our country, the most commonly held opinion is that men are breadwinners who do the earning and women are housewives who do the household chores and take care of the babies. But I think men should also do household chores. A man should also wash the dishes and do the cleaning because it is his home and his family. They should have the attitude that they need to build the family together. They should not think that women need to serve them because they are the breadwinners. It should be a reciprocal relationship. If you take it for granted that your wife should serve you because you are the breadwinner, then you are not fair.

YN: You have talked about the equality between men and women and equal contribution at home, the basic component of society. But, Ma Khin Lay, there were frequent reports of women being raped in conflict zones. Today, we still hear such reports but fewer compared to the past. There are such allegations in northern Arakan State. And two or three years ago, two Kachin teachers were raped and killed, and the culprits still haven’t been identified. So, has the situation of women in conflict zones changed in this political transition? How much has it improved?

KL: Unfortunately, the political changes have had the least positive impact on them. People like us, who live in urban areas and elsewhere, don’t clearly know the situation of women in conflict zones. The press has difficulty going to those places because of security concerns, and we also can’t go there. So, we don’t know how they are living and what is making them suffer. For example we don’t know how badly their rights are violated at camps, and if they have enough food. This is the more worrying thing for us. If we knew the situation, we could analyze it correctly. But we don’t know the real situation, and this is worrying for us.

Violations of women’s rights were the most frequent reports we had heard in the past. This still happens today. My view is that as long as there are conflicts, there will be violations of women’s rights. And children have also fallen victim to such cases. There is the UN Resolution on Women, Peace and Security and governments are required to seriously consider the security of women in conflict zones. But frankly speaking, we civil women’s organizations can hardly do anything now except loudly call on the government to carry out those things.

Right now, we can only call for ending the clashes and holding negotiations as soon as possible. We call for peace negotiations in the hope that the problems facing women in conflict zones will ease. And we also call for greater participation of women in the peace process so that women can represent and speak up for their peers who are affected by conflicts, in order to alleviate their suffering. But the rule of law is very weak in conflict areas, and we don’t know who is responsible for the abuse of women. I honestly believe that problems facing women in conflict zones will ease only when peace prevails there.

YN: Those clashes and battles are fought by men. So, Ko Mun Awng, what is your message to those who are fighting each other?

MA: I don’t accept men thinking they can commit violence against women because they have guns. It is not acceptable behavior to bully anyone at all, not only women, because you have a gun. Raping women at gunpoint is the worst thing, I would say. I don’t think every gunman behaves like that. There are many people who have guns in this world. If everyone who has a gun could do as they wished, this world would no longer be the world of humans. It would be the behavior of animals. I think it depends on individual behavior. Not every gunman would treat women like that. On the other hand, men have to exercise moral restraint. It is a shameful and very immoral thing, and we men need to exercise restraint.

Additionally, there must also be rule of law. Those who don’t exercise restraint must be punished according to the law. Unless and until there is such legal protection, there will be limited support for women.

YN: Thank you for your contributions.