Women’s Rights Groups Demand Changes to Constitution

By Nyein Nyein 11 July 2016

RANGOON — Women’s rights advocates have demanded changes to the constitution to ensure women’s basic rights, especially in conflict areas, at a press briefing on their experience of attending the United Nation’s (UN) 64th session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in Geneva, Switzerland.

About two-dozen advocates for gender equality and peace shared their CEDAW shadow reports with the UN CEDAW committee, while also receiving responses from the delegation representing the Burmese government.

The reports covered issues including violence against women and impunity, rule of law and women’s access to justice, human trafficking, women’s participation in political leadership and the peace process, the need to allocate budgets for gender equality and the advancement of rural women.

The government delegation committed to collaborating with civil society groups, including women’s groups, and pledged to work towards a national law on the Prevention of Violence against Women (PoVAW) and a National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women (NSPAW).

The government delegation included officials from the ministries of Foreign Affairs and of Social Welfare, the anti-trafficking police and an upper house lawmaker.

Burma’s last CEDAW report was in 2008. This year’s report from the government lacks data on violence against women in areas of armed conflict and makes no mention of human trafficking and women’s participation in the peace process—issues the women’s rights groups brought up with the UN in their shadow reports.

Lway Cherry of the Ta’ang (Palaung) Women’s Organization told The Irrawaddy that she was heartened by government team’s pledge of cooperation, calling it unprecedented.

However, she said “constitutional change remains key because, under the 2008 Constitution, there is a clause ensuring impunity for military personnel, even if they abuse women.” This has especially grave consequences in conflict areas, she said.

Ninety-two cases of sexual violence in conflict areas of Burma between 2010-2015, mostly in Shan and Kachin states, were recorded in the Women League of Burma’s CEDAW shadow report—compensating for the dearth of data on this subject in the government’s report.

May Sabe Phyu, director of the Gender Equality Network, questioned the Burmese government’s understanding of the articles contained in the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which it ratified in 1997.

Both the UN committee and women’s rights groups have criticized Burma’s 2008 Constitution and its domestic laws for falling well short of the commitments outlined in the convention—for instance in failing to properly define and prohibit direct and indirect forms of discrimination against women, and in the incorporation of restrictive gender stereotypes in legal provisions.

May Sabe Phyu said that, despite the government’s insistence that equal rights for women are enshrined in the constitution, “substantive equality” for women in the workplace or in education is still lacking.

The advocates also demanded that the number of women at decision-making levels should be increased, rather than a mere quantitative increase of women in the workplace.

Nga Ngai, an ethnic Kuki woman from the Women’s League of Burma, said that, although the government delegation was not able to respond to the specificities of the concerns raised with them, government and civil society have “strengthened their relations” as a result of this engagement.

May Sabe Phyu said that, although the non-government delegation had very little time in which to present their findings, the experience of presenting directly to the UN committee marked a “milestone” for civil society in Burma.