A recent article published in Tea Circle Oxford provoked some passionate responses arguing that more needs to be done to ensure the progress made on gender equality in Myanmar does not falter. The ensuing debate has largely favored the rejection of an ill-informed diagnosis that is based on conjecture surrounding the ‘myth of the disempowered Myanmar woman.’ The thesis presented by Brandon Aung Moe was compelling in theory, and did establish that activists often view gender equality issues in Myanmar as a binary when in fact, they exist on a spectrum. More importantly however, the article failed to ground itself in the lived experience of not only Burmese women but also that of ethnic women who have historically suffered far greater injustices in troubled peripheries of the Union.
That liberal, left-leaning feminism can often adopt a paternalistic tone in discussions on women’s rights is true, but this diagnosis merits further debate. If activists and advocates are indeed infected by a ‘gender sameness virus,’ where do we begin looking for an antidote? Perhaps it is necessary for both sides of the debate to recognize that while women in Myanmar might have historically enjoyed freedom and known liberation, it does not necessarily mean that over their life course, these advantages have been available to them in the form of opportunities for tangible social services and support.
Brandon Aung Moe’s diagnosis that “much of what seems to be discrimination against women is simply a result of economic and social conditions of those difficult times” is not entirely untrue, but the argument that this discrimination has nothing to do with widespread sexism is problematic. In emerging countries around the world, ample evidence has suggested that respect for women and adherence to notions that qualify their freedoms as essential does not always translate into better living conditions for women.
In the case of Myanmar, it is important to note the intergenerational lack of these conditions bracketed by economic hardship and politico-religious instability. When evaluated from a life course perspective that first tries to look at the economic and social well-being of older women before analyzing whether factors influencing their conditions are also replicated among cohorts of younger women, the results are intriguing. Does this famed liberation of Myanmar women ensure their well-being across all stages of their life course? Research on female poverty and financial security conducted by HelpAge International Myanmar, in collaboration with Tsao Foundation in Singapore, sheds light on this issue.
When referring to well-being, our research looks at indicators across the spectrum of economic, social, and political conditions that affect a woman’s life in Myanmar. We find that although younger women in Myanmar fair better than their older counterparts, a gender equality debate that focuses singularly on younger women could have a pervasive effect on their well-being in old age. It is a new area of research in Myanmar, and suffers from a lack of systematic inquiry that is representative of studies of the female population. Nevertheless, some of the preliminary findings of the research are that:
- Poverty and financial insecurity among women is caused by different factors that affect them through the life course, in particular traditional cultural norms, lack of government support, and ethnic conflict.
- There is some evidence to suggest that the factors that lead to poverty among elderly women are now being replicated among younger female cohorts, although Myanmar women today have more opportunities than previous generations.
- Two significant emerging trends at the moment that can affect future levels of well-being are: gaps in the traditional system of family support for the elderly, and a rise in the number of unmarried women in Myanmar.
The central thesis of the research is that women, as they become older, will be at a greater risk of poverty and financial security in Myanmar due to an intersection of factors that affect their opportunities to receive tangible social services and support at different stages of their life course.
The Current Situation of Aging in Myanmar
The 2014 Myanmar Population and Housing Census found that within Myanmar, the difference in mortality between sexes is very large; women on average live 9.1 years longer than men. Projections based on the 2014 Census findings indicate that by 2020, 7.6 percent of the female population in Myanmar will be in the 65 and older age group, and by 2040, this figure will rise to 13.6 percent. During the same period, the proportion of females in the 0-14 age group will fall from 25.7 percent in 2020 to 20.4 percent in 2040.
Myanmar still has a high rate of fertility compared to other Southeast Asian countries. At present, the total fertility rate (TFR) is 2.5 children per woman. At the time of the 1983 census, overall fertility was higher, with a national TFR of 4.7 children per woman. During the 1980s, fertility dropped rapidly to a level of 2.9 children per woman by 1991.
Income adequacy among older women is dependent overwhelmingly on children, and family support is a significant variable in relation to financial security among the elderly in Myanmar due to the absence of state support. It influences the availability of social and material support, quality of living arrangements, and healthcare access. Notably, a report titled The Situation of Older Persons in Myanmar, based on a nationally representative survey of older persons conducted by HelpAge International in 2012, also found that living alone is more common among older women than older men, reflecting their greater likelihood to be widowed. Because just more than half of older women (51.8 percent) are widowed, they must rely more heavily on their children, while three quarters (75 percent) of older men are still married.
Women’s Well-being Across the Life Course
The research attempts to classify factors that lead to reduced well-being among women based on the following life stages: childhood and adolescence; youth and early working age; middle working age; late working age; retirement; and post-retirement.
Available data and key informant interviews suggest that women begin to experience the disproportionate effects of gender inequality during youth and early working age, and middle working age. According to the 2014 census, only 50.5 percent of working age women (those 15 years or older) were part of the labor force (compared to 85.2 percent of men). The 2015 Myanmar Labor Force, Child Labor and School to Work Transition Survey (hereafter referred to as the 2015 Labor Force Survey) conducted by The Ministry of Labor, Employment, and Social Security (MoLES) and International Labor Organization (ILO) found that 48 percent of women (15+) were outside the labor force, and 64 percent cited housework and family responsibilities as the main cause for being outside the labor force. This divide was most pronounced in rural areas, but the reality was the same for women across the Union: access to work becomes more difficult for women because of social expectations that women will take on a larger share of household duties.
Even if women do enter the workforce, they are faced with norms about which industries to work in. Most women find jobs overwhelmingly in the agricultural sector, followed by the service sector and industry. Regardless of their profession, women overall receive consistently lower wages than men. Myanmar’s society typically values men’s work as more valuable than women’s and therefore pays both genders accordingly. The 2015 Labor Force Survey found that the average daily wage gap between males and females is 25 percent, while the average monthly wage gap is 20 percent. Women often migrate to urban areas – namely Yangon, Mandalay, and Naypyitaw – to look for better paying work. However, this relocation comes with its own risks including human trafficking, isolation from family, and continued wage discrimination.
Women of middle working age – those who have been working for a number of years and may be having children of their own – mark the point in the life cycle where certain factors begin to grow that will affect their financial stability later in life. Women still face the same issues as in the early working age life stage, but their situation is further complicated by other factors.
At this age, if women were engaged in the workforce, there is high potential that they will withdraw in order to care for families and/or start their own. One report titled Women and the Economy in Myanmar: An Assessment of DFAT’s Private Sector Development Programs found that Myanmar society tends to pressure women to prioritize such care over any career goals, which in turn perpetuates the culture’s tendency to depict women only as mothers and not active members of the economy. In addition, those who continue working are often not promoted into management roles and are not involved in decision making in the workplace. This, coupled with society’s depiction of women mainly responsible for the family, helps perpetuate norms that men are the real economic agents and breadwinners in society. Women therefore find themselves more and more dependent on men to provide income, which then erodes women’s independence and security later in life.
Myanmar has traditionally relied on low-productivity subsistence agriculture as a source of livelihood for its predominantly rural population. However, a lack of mechanization and absence of opportunities to scale up and/or step out of agriculture have contributed to poverty. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Myanmar has recognized that although women form the backbone of Myanmar’s agricultural economy, on average they are paid less than men, their contribution is overlooked, and they get fewer opportunities to step out of low paying agriculture into other productive sectors. This can have lasting effects on women over the life course, although it can manifest in any or all life stages.
Are Younger Women Less Vulnerable?
As Myanmar undergoes dramatic transformation and continues to pass reforms, are women still facing the same factors? In short, will the young women of today face the same challenges when they become elderly themselves?
Government support services – such as childcare – continue to be low for women. The 2015 Labor Force Survey also found that more than double the number of women (17.1 percent) than men (7.7 percent) continue to be considered unpaid family workers and there are few policies set in place by the government to assist such women in entering the labor force. The National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women is one such government-led effort to institutionalize research, planning and implementation of policy efforts that focus on women across all ages. The focus on elderly women however, is still very limited. Overall, women have yet to benefit from reforms in a way that will substantially impact their ability to work. This continues to hinder their ability to be financially independent in later life and live without the support from children or their spouse.
Some progress towards tangible social services and support has been made by the government. Since June 2017, all older persons above the age of 90 years have begun to receive a social pension worth 10,000 MMK per month. The advent of social pensions is a significant step for Myanmar. Overall, although the conditions for younger women’s mobility might be improving, there is still much work to be done to ensure that women across the country do not face insurmountable odds in order to ensure a more secure future. Unless development projects are able to intersect with financial reforms, it is likely that the change will be slow and the benefits that do come will struggle to sustain themselves nationally.
Emerging Trends and the Way Forward
Myanmar is still a very traditional society with strict gender roles and there is little evidence to show that these roles are changing quickly enough to match the country’s economic growth.
One key informant from the Gender Equality Network (GEN) noted that Myanmar cannot be characterized as a society that discourages women from working. More women are entering the labor force. However, much of that work is still in traditional roles that are informal, unpaid, or underpaid. And though there have been efforts to move beyond this – for example, the government’s 2013 decision to enact a national minimum wage – there is still no clear evidence on just how much women have benefitted from such policies.
Another trend that remains rooted in tradition is that the family unit generally provides support for the elderly. Yet this may also change or lead to problems for future generations. The declining fertility rate across the country is also reducing family size. Moreover, the 2012 Situation of Older Persons in Myanmar report found that daughters and grandchildren are prominent sources of support for unmarried elders in Myanmar. Given the steady increase in the number of unmarried women in the country (12.4 percent of women over the age of 50 were not married according to the 2014 Census), it is possible that aging women will have fewer children they can rely on for support.
As demonstrated by this research, as well as numerous other commentators, the way forward for gender equality in Myanmar is in the hands of all stakeholders – the government, civil society, and women themselves. Social progress is a process that spans generations, and it is worth noting that the process has already begun in Myanmar. The vast potential for women’s rights in the country cannot and must not be lost in an attempt to normalise discrimination. That women in Myanmar do continue to suffer from inequality is not a myth, and that the work of activists and advocates has contributed vastly to improved conditions for them is no legend either.
Shagun Gupta is a humanitarian worker, currently based in Yangon, Myanmar. Over the past two years, she has worked on food security and livelihoods with the United Nations in Myanmar (focusing on Rakhine State), and human rights documentation on the Thai-Myanmar border. This article is based on research done in her capacity as Programme Officer with HelpAge International Myanmar. The research is part of a regional effort to understand women’s well-being over the life course in ASEAN countries.
This article originally appeared in Tea Circle, a forum hosted at Oxford University for emerging research and perspectives on Burma/Myanmar.