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Interview: ‘Women are dominated by this conservative culture’

Women’s role in Burmese society is often limited by conservative norms and values, and even more so in the field of decision-making and politics, which remains the domain of men.

Women Can Do it (WCDI) Myanmar is a Rangoon-based NGO that provides training and runs programmes that encourage women to become involved in political activities and work for changes in women’s rights and gender equality.

Naw Aye Aye Hlaing, 41, is a programme manager at WCDI, which was founded in 2011. She spoke with Myanmar Now about its activities and what changes she would like to see in women’s roles in Burmese society.

Question: What sort of activities is WCDI implementing to promote women’s political power?

Answer: Women Can Do It (WCDI) has been conducting training since 2011 to promote the role of women in politics, not only at union and regional level, but also in the ward and village administration. WCDI Myanmar also publishes a journal. We work together with other organisations on women’s rights. We will conduct capacity-building training for young women who are preparing to enter the world of politics during the next election cycle in 2020. Burmese women now have little chance to take on political representative roles, or leadership roles, or decision-making roles. We are trying to change this.

Q: How many of the women that you have trained for political office have reached executive or legislative roles?

A: Out of 14 candidates that participated in our training course for the 2015 general elections, two women have taken up political roles. One is Lwei Nan Moe, a lower house lawmaker of Mantong Township, who represents the Ta’ang National Party. Another women is Nan Hmwe Hmwe Khin, who has become the Ethnic Affairs Minister from the upper Sagaing Division, where she represents the Tai Leng (Red Shan) Nationalities Development Party. Some of our other trainees are community leaders at a local level, representing for example groups of 10 households.

Q: Do you think there has been any progress recently in reaching political goals on women’s rights?

A: We cannot make enough progress until now. Some women parliamentarians are going to women in their constituency to hear their demands, but they have not submitted any proposal in parliament to call for improvements in women’s rights. Maybe it is because these are still the initial sessions of parliament.

Q: What do you think of the situation for Burma in terms of women’s personal safety?

A: Safety remains a serious issue for women. Recently, for example, there was news that went viral on social media about a husband who stabbed his wife to death. The attacker should be severely punished to prevent such incidents. Rape cases of women and girls from many ages continue to occur. Women are given some blame in many rape cases, because supposedly their dresses revealed too much of their body. But actually, women who did not dress like that also fall victim to rape cases, so that’s nonsense.

The views of people should be changed and they should not hold prejudices about female victims. Burmese society does not blame men for smoking or consuming alcohol. Our society has a tendency to put more restrictions on women. Even media and entertainment programmes quickly point out mistakes of women, although men are also responsible for many faults. Women are dominated by this conservative culture. We need to change this perspective.

Q: What sort of legal changes should be made to protect women and girls?

A: Punishments and penalties should be clearly defined for offences that include verbal or physical abuses of women, and life-threatening offences against them. A woman plaintiff should get security measures after she has filed a formal complaint at the court.

Q: Do you think Burmese people are aware of existing legal protection for women?

A: Both women and men do not understand current provisions that protect women by law. Many women are not willing to initiate legal proceedings, although they were abused, as they worry about the cost of prosecution. So, disseminating legal knowledge is important so victims do not shun the court.

Q: Are there proper facilities to shelter women and girls fleeing abuse?

A: Some training programmes were conducted to prevent abuse of women in this country. But there are only a small number of care centers for abused women. Such care centers must provide security, employment support, legal knowledge and mental treatment.

Q: We have heard that police do not always know how to help female victims of abuse. What should be done to address this issue?

A: Female police inspectors should be put in charge of helping a victim file a statement of complaint. If there are not enough policewomen assigned for this duty, then male officers should be specifically trained in carefully examining the victims. Policemen and also military personnel should understand how to handle these cases.

Q: What can be done to raise awareness of women’s rights?

A: More women should become involved on the local administrative level. Another area where women’s participation should be improved is the peace process — there is too little representation of women. And if political parties can field more women candidates in next elections more women MPs can enter the next parliament.


Q: There are many women affected by humanitarian crises. How can the government and NGOs better help women displaced by conflict?

A: Many women at the IDP camps lost their husbands in civil war. Some women have to lead their family after their husbands become disabled in the fight. Treatment is needed for people at the camps who suffer from mental trauma and depression. Women must be accommodated at safe places in the IDP camps. Women’s bodies are also more vulnerable to diseases than men. So, they need better access to clean water and nutritious food. A malnourished mother will give birth to weak babies.

This article was originally published by Myanmar Now on 19 August 2016.


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