Activists Call for Constitutional Change to Empower Women

By Nyein Nyein 21 November 2014

Burmese women’s rights advocates added their voices to the contentious debate on amending Burma’s Constitution this week, urging charter changes to promote gender equality during the Beijing+20 regional review forum held in Bangkok.

Burmese women’s representatives, both from the government and civil society organizations, as well as exiled women’s activist groups, attended the Asia-Pacific Conference on Beijing+20 in the Thai capital from Monday to Thursday. The Beijing+20 gathering offered a review of Asia-Pacific countries’ progress on women’s empowerment and gender equality.

Nyo Nyo Thin, a Rangoon divisional lawmaker, told The Irrawaddy on Friday that “the Burmese government’s report that was shared at the regional review meeting is incomplete and raised a lot of questions legally and practically.”

According to Nyo Nyo Thin, an official from Burma’s Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement Ministry presented the country’s report.

“Not only this, its report does not reflect the actual conditions that most Burmese women are facing,” the lawmaker added.

Nyo Nyo Thin and other women’s rights advocates in attendance said the government’s report for the review revealed that many Burmese, especially in government, do not understand the extent of discrimination against women that persists in Burma. She called for “special temporary measures” in the Constitution aimed at achieving gender equality in Burma.

Burma signed the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1997, and the 2008 Constitution does specifically state that “the Union shall not discriminate [against] any citizen of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, based on race, birth, religion, official position, status, culture, sex and wealth.”

Still, many women in Burma continue to face discrimination, whether in the job market, or as victims of sexual abuse by the military or street harassment.

Shwe Shwe Sein Latt, the director of Pan Tee Eain and a leader of the Burma-based Women’s Organization Network, called for the creation of a new ministry “focusing on gender equality and women’s empowerment,” saying the Social Welfare Ministry currently responsible for such matters was handling such a broad portfolio that its effectiveness was diminished.

She added that raising awareness about women’s issues was desperately needed at all levels of society, from the grassroots to civil society organizations and government bureaucrats.

As discussions in Burma have turned to constitutional reform in recent years, women’s groups have lobbied for amendments that would protect and empower women.

But Shwe Shwe Sein Latt said their efforts had not elicited any response from the parliamentary committee tasked with considering amendments to the Constitution. “We have raised the issue for over a year, but have received no reply. We just keep sending our concerns to them.”

The Beijing Declaration, also known as the Beijing Platform for Action, was adopted in 1995 and “constitutes a global framework for realizing gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls,” according to the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.