In Person

‘Myanmar Has Come a Long Way’ on Reproductive Rights

By Nyein Nyein 7 December 2018

CHIANG MAI, Thailand—Janet Jackson ended her nearly 20-year career with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) as the agency’s representative in Myanmar. She retired last month.

During her time in Myanmar, she oversaw international technical, logistical and financial support for the country’s first census in 30 years. She also championed a “women and girls first” initiative.

Ahead of her departure, Jackson discussed her experiences helping to organize Myanmar’s census, and promoting reproductive health education and youth empowerment, in an email interview with The Irrawaddy.

UNFPA played a key role in Myanmar’s 2014 census and follow-up reports. Would you say it was conducted to international standards? Are there any changes needed in the process and if so, what are they? What were the biggest challenges and successes during your time in Myanmar? 

Without a doubt, the biggest challenge and the biggest success during my time in Myanmar was the 2014 Myanmar population and housing census, which UNFPA supported the government of Myanmar to conduct.  Many countries across different regions have benefited from Myanmar’s state-of-the-art census. Last week, Nepal’s Bureau of Statistics and Ministry of Planning undertook a study tour to learn from Myanmar’s experience. Other countries [to do so] included Cambodia, North Korea, Haiti, Egypt and Pakistan.

The census has given a comprehensive picture of Myanmar’s people—where they are, who they are and how many they are—and what their social and economic living conditions are. The results are an essential tool for effective policy development, planning, decision-making, and improvement to public services. The strength of the collected and analyzed data has proven hugely useful to government, civil society, NGOs, the UN and the private sector alike across a range of areas that benefit the population. Hardly a day goes by without a mention of this in some form or other.

Census taking is done on the basis that everyone deserves to be counted, irrespective of race, religion, gender, age, citizenship, social status and living conditions. The census is one of Myanmar’s most inclusive development projects to date, reaching 98 per cent of the population. Regrettably, the Myanmar government at the time did not allow over 1 million people to self-identify as Rohingya as they had wished. As a result, they were not enumerated, despite the UN system putting all its weight behind advocacy efforts for all people in Myanmar to be included in the census. In Kachin and Kayin, sizeable groups in non-government controlled areas were also not enumerated.

What changes have you seen since you first came to Myanmar regarding women and young people’s knowledge of reproductive health rights?  What would be your advice to the public on this issue? 

When I first arrived in Myanmar, my colleagues and I couldn’t even use the words “family planning” without causing a stir. We had to call it “birth spacing”. The inference was that only married women were entitled to access to contraceptives, purely for spacing their pregnancies. This leaves out all those who are sexually active and also do not wish to get pregnant.

Myanmar has come a long way since then. The government is increasing its budget allocation for contraceptives. There is also recognition within the Ministry of Health that all women have the right to decide for themselves if and when to become pregnant, and how many children to have. This includes young women and unmarried women too. I see a human rights-based approach to sexual and reproductive health services provision gradually filtering down to local health workers and throughout society. In the area of family planning, Myanmar has made great strides, and it is heading in the right direction. NGOs and INGOs [international NGOs] and government are working in concert to ensure that access is improved and more modern contraceptive choices are available for women. More needs to be done so that women are fully aware of the choices that are available.

In Myanmar, women—especially in rural areas—tend to lack knowledge about reproductive health rights. What reasons do you see for this? 

As a country representative for the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, I have traveled extensively in Myanmar, and everywhere I go, I take the time to talk and listen to women from all walks of life. What I hear is that women know what they want. They want to be in control of their own bodies and their own lives. They may not always know how to do this, and this is especially true for women who are geographically, culturally or financially isolated and disadvantaged.

All partners need to play a role; the government, the UN, the private health sector and civil society must strive to step up to the challenges of providing all women with the information they need to make informed choices, and the services they require to exercise their right. Many women do not get postnatal care, yet family planning advice is a critical element of postnatal care.

Equally important is avoiding early marriage and teenage pregnancy. Young women and men need access to youth-friendly services and information on sexual and reproductive health and rights. Yet few places offer this. And where these do exist, they are often not functioning at optimal level. Access to sexuality information and services enables young people to focus on reaching their full potential and making informed choices about their relationships and future.

UNFPA also supports young people’s participation in the peace process through youth camps and empowerment. What can youth contribute to peace building? Why are their voices important? 

A profound transformation is needed for Myanmar to become a country with a stable peace. Part of the force for positive social change can come from young people. Young people have remarked that in conflict, it is often the youth who are on the frontline. In this case, they also think it is right that they have a voice and can participate in making peace happen.

Young people have largely been excluded from efforts to resolve conflicts in the country. The UN has clear recommendations on how young people should be able to engage at all levels of the peace processes. Young people—female and male—need to be heard and need to be part of this. They can also participate as advocates for peace and agents of change in their own communities. They can also be an asset at the national level.

A great deal of UNFPA’s work in the area of youth, peace and security focuses on expanding national multi-ethnic youth networks. This is strengthening coordination of the youth peace movement across diverse communities. This needs to be mobilized also at a national level. Young people can be makers as well as guardians of peace in Myanmar.