Double Jeopardy: Abuse of Ethnic Women's Human Rights in Burma
Many sociologists, anthropologists, and even Burmese politicians have maintained that Burmese women face less gender discrimination than do their sisters in other Southeast Asian countries. Burma's relative isolation for nearly forty years has helped perpetuate this myth, even as women's groups in exile make concerted efforts to debunk it. Despite Burma's ratification of the Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), discrimination is apparent in virtually every facet of women's lives. Its consequences are most visible in the country's remote rural areas, populated primarily by ethnic peoples, where gender discrimination is compounded by civil war. Because of the diversity among Burma's 135 officially-recognized ethnic groups, generalizing about them is risky. However, there clearly exists a country-wide pattern to the abuses suffered by Karen, Karenni, Mon, Shah, Kachin, Chin, Arakanese, Rohingya, and other ethnic women.
In naming itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the ruling military junta neatly highlights the two areas in which it most consistently fails the country's citizens: peace and development. Government neglect of social programs diminishes women's access to health care, education, and economic resources, while military campaigns to eliminate ethnic resistance put women's lives and wellbeing under constant threat. For years, even decades, human rights organizations have documented human rights violations against ethnic women in Burma. Only recently have Burmese women's organizations in exile had the means to publicize the lesser-known consequences of oppression for women.
Social Services Neglected: Women's Welfare Under Military Rule
Nearly forty years of military misrule have taken a heavy toll on Burma's economy. The government's macro-economic mismanagement and high allocation of funds to the military at the expense of social services have resulted in an inadequate infrastructure and widespread poverty. Many rural areas, where communities are isolated and social and economic life is regularly disrupted by conflict, have never had schools or hospitals. Where such services do exist, underpayment of civil servants has contributed to corruption, placing both education and health care beyond the means of many families.
Government policies have directly contributed to poverty and food scarcity in rural areas where war, migration, and disease have increased the number of female heads of household. The requirement that villagers sell a portion of their crops at below-market prices to the government, regardless of yield, leaves subsistence farmers unable to feed their families. Massive forced relocation, aimed at eliminating contact between civilian populations and opposition armies, has been ongoing in many ethnic areas since the 1970s. It is estimated that over the last ten years more than 1.5 million people have been displaced, typically to land unsuitable for cultivation and with poor access to potable water and inadequate medical facilities. With very few opportunities for wage labor, women farmers must struggle to meet both their families' needs and the demands of the Burmese army for rations, taxes, and labor.
The double burden of farmwork and housework that most women bear takes a toll on their health. It is estimated that 40 percent of the population is without access to health services of any kind. Poor health care, malnutrition, the stress of living in difficult conditions, and endemic diseases have led to high maternal mortality rates, estimated at 580 or more per 100,000 in some rural areas. Most women give birth at home, assisted only by traditional birth attendants. In many ethnic areas, women have never had the means to control their own fertility, and many give birth ten or more times, though often only half of their children live to adulthood. HIV transmission rates continue to increase alarmingly in all areas of the country; over one percent of the population is currently infected, according to UNAIDS. The SPDC has denied that AIDS is a problem and continues narrowly to proscribe information, education, and prevention activities. The government also restricts publications in languages besides Burmese, making accurate information on HIV/AIDS even less accessible to the large number of ethnic women who neither speak nor read Burmese.
Government statistics place Burma's female literacy rates among the highest in the region at 79 percent. Community leaders, however, estimate female illiteracy at 80 percent in some ethnic areas, a figure confirmed by a 1995 education survey carried out in refugee camps in Thailand. Traditional gender stereotypes also dictate that education beyond basic literacy is unnecessary for girls. When family resources are scarce and schools distant, families are more likely to educate their sons. Fear of harassment by government soldiers prevents families from sending daughters to school outside their villages. Girls frequently drop out of school or simply do not attend in order to assist parents with farm or housework or to take care of younger siblings and allow them the opportunity to study.
Increasing Women's Burden: Forced Labor
While women struggle to find enough food for survival, their earnings and work hours are eroded by the SPDC's relentless use of unpaid forced labor on infrastructure projects and at army bases. A 1998 International Labor Organisation (ILO) Commission of Inquiry concluded that although the SPDC conscripts civilians to work without pay throughout the country, forced labor is most common in ethnic minority areas, where it is used as a means of enforcing army control over local populations. In June 2000, the ILO's general membership took the unprecedented step of approving the use of diplomatic sanctions against the regime if conditions have not improved by November 30, 2000.
At present, women are more likely than ever to be pressed into service for days or weeks at a time. Under the current economic crisis, women and children not otherwise employed in income-generating work are often the first to work as unpaid laborers in order to spare the family's main wage earners. Widows are particularly vulnerable as they are often unable to pay the fees that would exempt them from forced labor. In Arakan State on Burma's western border, many Muslim Rohingya women are widowed when their husbands are killed doing forced labor, and must flee Arakan State for Bangladesh when their extended families can no longer support them.
It was once believed that women were generally spared the most onerous form of forced labor: portering goods for the army. However, in interviews conducted over 1998 and 1999, Chin, Karen, and Karenni women indicated that not only are women increasingly taken for porter duty, but pregnant, nursing, and elderly women are not spared. One Chin woman reported that she was forced to carry twelve tins of ammunition on her back for seven days while carrying her four month-old child on her front.
Sexual Violence: Women and the Civil War
As in other civil wars, civilian women have been systematically targeted by SPDC soldiers for violence, particularly rape, on the basis of their ethnicity. There have been consistent accounts throughout the country's border areas of physical and psychological abuse of ethnic women by government soldiers, including beatings, torture, summary executions, rape, and other forms of sexual violence. Rape occurs most frequently in areas of active armed conflict, but is also well-documented in other areas with high troop concentrations. Some of the most graphic stories come from free-fire zones around Shan relocation areas, where in numerous incidents soldiers have raped and killed women, at times also cutting off their breasts and other body parts. Women forced to porter goods for the army or conscripted for labor at distant sites are often gang-raped at night by supervising troops.
Shame, fear of reprisals, explicit threats from perpetrators, and the bitter knowledge that military personnel are above the law prevent most women from reporting rapes. The impunity that attackers enjoy perpetuates the violence. To date, no mechanisms have been established to investigate reported cases or punish perpetrators, as the government consistently denies the problem. Instead, survivors must live with their pain, and other women in their communities must live in fear. In some areas, women live in virtual confinement, rarely leaving their houses when soldiers are in the area. Throughout the country's ethnic areas, the perceived threat of violence prevents women from traveling alone, further restricting their opportunities for education and employment.
When cases of rape are reported, attempts to bring soldiers to justice may compound survivors' misery, as commanders sometimes force marriages between women and their attackers. Coerced marriage between ethnic women and soldiers is an established part of the government's "Burmanization" program. Reports indicate that taking an ethnic bride may be considered a criterion for promotion in the armed forces. Since births are usually registered using the father's nationality, any children of these unions are considered Burman.
Refugee Vulnerability and Trafficking
As a result of poverty, conflict, and displacement, many ethnic minority women and men choose to leave Burma. Some are able to reach refugee camps, but most enter neighboring countries illegally in search of work. In both cases, migrating women are at risk of violence and harassment from authorities and private individuals on both sides of Burma's borders. While jobs for women are scarce in Burma they are often more plentiful for women than for men outside the country. In both Thailand and India, women migrants are sought for domestic service, factory work, weaving, work in restaurants, and sex work. Most must labor under conditions that exploit their illegal status, working long hours for low wages with no legal recourse for seeking better treatment.
Ethnic women face increasing restrictions on travel. Measures like the 1997 order (enacted by the regional army command in eastern Shan State) prohibiting women aged 16 to 25 from traveling without a legal guardian actually increase the likelihood that women planning to migrate will enlist the help of traffickers, exposing them to greater risk of exploitation. Regional media have focused on the deplorable conditions endured by Burmese women trafficked into sex work in Thailand. Interned in squalid conditions and forced to have sex with upwards of fifty clients a week, often without condoms, many have died from AIDS-related illnesses. Recent reports by Karen and Rohingya women trafficked out of refugee camps suggest that situations encountered by women and girls sold into bonded domestic or factory labor may be equally abusive. Physically and psychologically mistreated, trafficked women often have little or no access to medical services. They have no opportunity to leave their workplace until the "debt" to their employer is paid, and are likely to face further abuse in custody if they are "rescued" by the authorities. Those who are deported for illegal entry may face imprisonment of up to three years on their return to Burma; those not deported may languish indefinitely in immigration prisons.
Burma and the CEDAW: Ratification versus Reality
Burma's military government ratified the CEDAW in 1997. The Convention's 16 substantive articles oblige signatory governments not only to promote and protect women's human rights through appropriate programs in the public sphere, but also to eliminate discrimination by private actors and work to change gender stereotypes that disadvantage women. The SPDC's direct role in violating the rights of ethnic women, its failure to take punitive action in the face of clear patterns of abuse, and its neglect of women's basic needs nationwide were harshly judged by CEDAW Committee members when the SPDC presented its first obligatory report in January 2000.
The SPDC's initial report was an opportunity not only for the Committee's 23 gender experts to examine the Burmese government's actions, but also for independent organizations, including ethnic minority women's groups, to challenge the SPDC's claims. Members from five women's organizations, representing a variety of ethnic groups, worked for three months to document women's experiences in conflict areas for one of two shadow reports the Committee received. The second report, by Images Asia, was produced over two years with the help of these and six other indigenous Burmese women's organizations by compiling evidence from interviews with over 370 women to give a broad overview of the country situation. Representatives of Burmese Women's Union, the Karenni National Women's Organization, Shan Women's Action Network, the Tavoyan Women's Union, and Images Asia traveled to New York to attend the meeting and provide Committee members with further first-hand information prior to their public dialogue with SPDC representatives.
One of the primary criticisms leveled at the SPDC delegation concerned its failure to present the substantive data required to establish a baseline against which further assessment of the progress of women's human rights in Burma will be made. The SPDC report, reiterating the political rhetoric on preservation of the union and national solidarity, is conspicuously lacking in hard data disaggregated by sex, ethnicity, and geographic area. While the report states that culture is among the six critical areas of concern for the National Women's Affairs Committee, its depiction of a singular "Myanmar" culture ignores the diversity among Burma's women. In the same way, the report ignores the SPDC's concerted efforts to homogenize the nation through its military campaigns in ethnic communities. During a break, the ethnic minority women who attended the meeting held their own briefing session in rejoinder to the SPDC report, where each explained the human rights abuses she and women in her community had suffered under military rule.
Though the official record of concluding comments and observations is couched in considerably more diplomatic terms, during dialogue with the SPDC the Committee members expressed their concerns in flank and critical language, clearly embarrassing the government delegation. Opening comments by the Committee member from Bangladesh set the tone, raising the issues of systematic human rights violations in the course of armed conflict, forced relocation, lack of services available to women refugees, and lack of provision of basic needs such as primary education and food security. Other Committee members followed with a gamut of hard- hitting comments and queries regarding the constitutional and de facto guarantees of ethnic women's rights, allegations of military impunity in the case of rape and other human rights abuses, the pervasive use of women for forced labor, the prevalence of trafficking of Burmese women, the accelerated spread of HIV/AIDS throughout the country, and women's representation in government.
Aside from the review process that state parties must undergo every four years, the Convention prescribes no punitive measures against governments for their failure to observe its provisions. The Committee's concluding comments and recommendations have become an important part of the international record on Burma, however, focusing long-overdue light on the specific effects of armed conflict, poverty, and political repression on the country's women. This recognition is a testament to the efforts of ethnic women's organizations and the courage of all those women who dared to tell the truth in the hope that it will bring a better future.
References & further reading
Burma Debate (Winter 1999/2000). Vol. VI, No. 4.
Images Asia (December 1999). "Alternative Perspectives, Other Voices: Assessing Gender Equality in Burma," Submission to the 22nd Session of the Committee of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
Women's Organizations from Burma and Women's Affairs Department, National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (2000). "Burma: The Current State of Women -- Conflict Area Specific. "A Shadow Report to the 22nd Session of the CEDAW, January 2000.
The Women's League of Burma, Foreign Relations Committee, P. O. Box 413, Chiangmai, Thailand 50000. Contact:
Images Asia, P.O. Box 2, Prasingha Post Office, Chiangmai, Thailand 50200, www.imagesasia.org.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.