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Human Rights in Burma

[Source: Forum News, August 1998]

Images Asia

Images Asia is currently producing a report concerning the state of women's rights in Burma. In 1997, SLORC ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and their maiden report under the terms of the Convention is due this year. Given the reports made by the former SLORC regime at the United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing (1995) and to other United Nations bodies, the CEDAW report by SPDC is unlikely to reflect with accuracy the true situation for women living in Burma. Furthermore, with the abrogation of most human rights under the preceding military regime, which had shown little respect for the human dignity of the Burmese people, it is highly likely that women's human rights abuses continue to occur with regularity under SPDC "governance." The existence and continuation of many of these abuses point directly to the military junta's policies, and their failure to reform either the laws or the economic system.

Women's Rights in Burma

The combination of ongoing civil war and the SLORC/SPDC's economic mismanagement have resulted in greater hardship for most citizens of Burma, who now struggle daily to provide for their own needs. Increasingly women must work to supplement family incomes in an economic climate that provides them with few opportunities for income-generation. In addition, escalating military funding and ever-declining social spending have meant reduced access to health care and educational facilities, except for the wealthy or those connected to the military.

With a cultural tradition of maternal self-abnegation, women consistently forego their own needs in order to give their children first priority. Due to a combination of traditional Burmese customs and the deteriorating economic situation, families are increasingly prioritizing the rights of males over females to limited resources. As a result, women and girls throughout Burma suffer from reduced access to nutritious food, medical services, as well as vocational training and other educational opportunities.

Rural women are most affected by the nation's instability. Frequently widowed or separated from their families at an early age, women are forced to work as porters and unpaid labourers for local SPDC military troops and are often raped by soldiers. Ethnic women in areas where armed conflict with the junta is ongoing face constant threats of attack, rape, torture, slavery, and murder by SPDC soldiers. In addition, while male members of the community are taken as porters, serve as soldiers, or are killed, women are often left alone to raise their children. Even after fleeing to a neighboring country for protection, female refugees and children are the most vulnerable in threats to their security.

Urban women who have historically enjoyed relatively high levels of social power have, under SLORC=-SPDC, been subject to restrictions on speech and increasingly limited opportunities for higher positions in public or private service. In the government and civil service, the junta gives priority to those with military experience, who are usually male. Repeated school and university closures since 1988 have prevented many female students from completing their secondary schooling, leaving fewer young women equipped with the background to enter positions in the public or private sectors. In addition, the scarcity of jobs has left women with a paucity of employment choices, thus they are less likely to take legal resources in cases of sexual harassment by male employers, which are frequently alleged in some work environments.

In addition very few women in Burma have access to education concerning their reproductive rights or live in situations where they are able to practice safe forms of birth control. As a result of economic exigency, an increasing number of women and girls are entering Thailand in search of work in order to support their families. Many end up in brothels under conditions that put them at high risk of contracting HIV, and a growing number of Burmese women are dying of AIDS in Thailand.

After the bloody events of 1988, most overseas development aid (ODA) and assistance through the UN to Burma was suspended, on the proviso that activities would recommence when the country exhibited a significant improvement in its human rights record and movement towards democratization. At present, only a few UN programs initiated before 1988 continue to operate. Very few indigenous non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been allowed to exist. Those international NGOs which have undertaken programs in the country have found their activities severely curtailed and their access to border areas most in need of assistance restricted or denied. As the SPDC appears unwilling to expand its social programs or permit free distribution of information, at present very little is being done inside the country to improve the situation for Burma's women. Furthermore, under the climate of fear which exists, few voices are raised to counter the SPDC's version of the conditions, and little independent research is possible inside Burma.

While the Convention requires State Parties to make legislative steps towards gender equality, after more than four years, the SLORC-SPDC has yet to conclude the National Convention convened to draft a constitution, and thus continues to rule by decree. It is as yet unknown what principles from the CEDAW will be enshrined in Burma's new constitution. In any case, it is quite unlikely that the SPDC will report any of the flagrant violations of the CEDAW which are currently occurring to the Committee. Alternative voices must be heard to provide a true assessment of the existing conditions for women inside Burma, and to ensure that improvements can be made. It is also critical that women inside Burma have access to information about their rights under CEDAW and the SPDC's obligations as a State Party in order to redress their situation.

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