Burma’s progress in achieving gender equality was under the spotlight in Naypyidaw on Friday during a review of the country’s National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women.
Government officials and representatives of NGOs and leading women’s organisations gathered in the Burmese capital to assess efforts to achieve the plan’s development goals set for the year 2022.
The conference comes in the same week that a new report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) reveals that socioeconomic reforms aimed at improving the status of women still lag drastically behind other reform efforts.
According to the report, “greater investment is needed to ensure that women and girls benefit equally with men and boys from the socioeconomic reforms”. It also recommends using the strategic plan — launched in 2013 to address issues affecting the country’s women — “to instill a gender equality agenda”.
Burma’s commitment to the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was reviewed in July, when recommendations were handed down to the government, yet many women’s rights groups say there has been little action since then.
Speaking to DVB ahead of today’s conference, May Sabe Phyu, director of Gender Equality Myanmar, said that “no significant progress been made so far after the CEDAW review, particularly for protecting women and children.”
“The number of cases of violence against women has increased,” she said, but added that the recent attention given to a high-profile abuse case involving two young housemaids could prompt some action from the the Ministry of Social Welfare.
While violence remains a pressing concern for women, however, other areas, such as education and health, present a more complicated gender-equality picture.
“Access to education and completion rates are embedded in much broader issues,” according to Chris Spohr, an ADB specialist in Burma’s social sector. “Lack of access by the majority of the population of boys and girls is quite gender equitable, but the story is nuanced amongst gaps between rich and poor, rural and urban and ethnic groups.”
At the primary-education level, the female literacy rate is 86 percent, compared to 92 percent for boys; however, the middle-school completion rate drops dramatically to around 44 percent for both boys and girls, according to data from Burma’s 2014 census.
“Girls then start pulling ahead of boys, as more girls reach grade 11 and about 60 percent of enrollment into university is female,” says Sphor, noting that 80 percent of students in masters programmes are women.
Despite their dominance in higher education, however, “female labour force participation is significantly lower than [that of] males,” adds Spohr.
To remedy this situation, attendees at the conference in Naypyidaw recommended reviewing school curricula from a gender perspective, supporting teacher-training reforms and ensuring that women have access to technical and vocational education and training to promote their entry into nontraditional occupations.
As an example of outdated textbooks that perpetuate gender stereotypes, Spohr cites one containing a grammar exercise using sentences like “she washed the dished, she washes the dishes, she will wash the dishes.”
However, Spohr notes that the Ministry of Education is fully aware of these challenges and is showing its commitment to tackle these problems through its Comprehensive Sector Education Review.
Women’s health quality compared to men overall remains an issue of particular concern. According to the ADB report, “women’s health interventions were revealed to be focused on maternal, sexual and reproductive health but with little attention to women and girls emotional health and violence-related health concerns.”
One area of women’s health that has improved is the maternal mortality ratio, which has declined from 520 deaths per 100,000 births in 1990 to 200 deaths in 2010. The proportion of births attended by skilled personnel has increased, from 56 percent in 1997 to 78 percent in 2010 — nearing the 2015 Millennium Development Goal target of 80 percent.
Another area of gender inequality highlighted in the report was the stereotype that women are referred to as “mothers” in the 2008 Constitution.
Today’s launch was attended by the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Social Welfare and also the Ministry of Labour, Population and Immigration.