As a United Nations committee reviewing Burma’s compliance with an international convention on women’s rights prepares to submit its conclusions this week, women’s groups from the country said they were encouraged by the new government’s receptivity to their input, but worried about its stance on some of the issues.
Burma’s laws and policies relating to the treatment of women came under scrutiny at Geneva last week during a review of its commitment to the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). It was the first such review since 2008, when the country was still under military rule.
“The responses from the government delegates were quite positive and welcoming to us civil society organisations, frequently highlighting that they are coordinating with women’s groups,” said May Sabe Phyu, director of the Gender Equality Network (GEN).
She noted, however, that despite the change in attitude under the country’s new, democratically elected government, there were still signs of resistance to criticism, particularly on the issue of the glass ceiling and the lack of women’s participation in peace talks.
Even more sensitive is the issue of violence against women committed by members of Burma’s armed forces, which retains significant power despite ceding direct control of the government to the National League for Democracy in April.
“They [the government delegates] said no one is above the law and they are handling all sexual violence cases by security forces or anybody with equal treatment, as equal under the judicial system, but in fact this is not true,” said May Sabe Phyu, speaking to DVB from Geneva.
Although a national law on the prevention of violence against women has been under discussion since the last review in 2008, it was not prioritised by the previous government and remains stalled in parliament, in part because of strong objections to a clause addressing conflict-related sexual violence committed by security actors, according to May Sabe Phyu.
In a shadow report submitted to the CEDAW review committee, GEN recommended severe punishments for those who commit rape or sexual violence so that the climate of impunity can be eliminated.
In another shadow report submitted on behalf of 15 local organisations under the coalition CEDAW Action Myanmar, over 300 respondents were interviewed about their experiences of sexual, domestic and institutional violence. Two organisations, Legal Clinic Myanmar and the Mon State Women and Children Upgrade Conduct Organisation, reported that they dealt with over 1,059 cases of violence against women annually.
Some groups noted that while the new government was at least willing to listen to their concerns, it seemed ill-prepared to deal with the multitude of problems that needed to be resolved.
“The delegates, mostly from the new government, seemed to be willing, but at the same time a bit overwhelmed with all the changes that will be required,” said Htoo Htoo of the Karen Human Rights Group, adding that more than 140 laws and regulations would be subject to review for CEDAW compliance.
“They acknowledged that the national plan for the advancement of women needs improvement and updating,” said Htoo Htoo, speaking from Geneva. “Some of the delegates even acknowledged that in time the Constitution will need to be reviewed.”
The 10-year national plan for the advancement of women has seen little progress since it was initiated in 2013, in large part because it was seen as a low priority under the army-backed government of former President Thein Sein.
“It is because of a lack of budget and a lack of political will, so unless we see a five percent allocated budget towards the implementation of the national strategic plan for the advancement of women, we will not consider that the government has full political will to advance women’s rights,” said May Sabe Phyu.
The CEDAW committee will prepare its formal report to be handed down to the government this week.