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Burma Government Under UN Scrutiny on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women

By Burma Partnership  •  July 12, 2016

Minority-WomenThe Burma Government submitted its first periodic report under National League for Democracy (NLD) leadership to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women on 6 July. Having ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1997, Burma is responsible for submitting regular reviews on its progress towards implementing provisions that support gender equality and women’s rights. These provisions include incorporating equality within a country’s legal system, institutionalizing the protection of women from discrimination and to eliminate acts of discrimination altogether, to name a few.  This year’s periodic report exposed a number of shortcomings for women’s rights in Burma.

During the 6 July, 2016 meeting, civil society organizations such as CEDAW Action Myanmar, the Gender Equality Network, the Global Justice Center, the Women’s Organization Network, and the Women’s League of Burma (WLB) presented their concerns and recommendations for the state of women’s rights and equality in Burma.

Representing 16 women’s groups in Burma, CEDAW Action Myanmar summarized the status of women’s rights in Burma, stating, “Discrimination against women was deeply rooted, the result of entrenched patriarchy, decades of oppressive military dictatorship and the continued power and influence of the military throughout the society.  Women had limited means to pursue accountability and obtain redress and reparations for violations, the rule of law was weak and justice institutions lacked independence and resources.  Women had been excluded from participation in political life, including from the current peace process and any policy and decision-making.”

In a shadow report released ahead of the 6 July meeting, the Women’s League of Burma (WLB), representing 13 women’s organizations from various ethnic communities, shed light on the vulnerability of ethnic women in conflict and post-conflict environments. The organization explained how the Burma Army regularly uses sexual violence against women as a tactic to intimidate ethnic armed organizations or those living in regions in which the army has a vested development or investment interest. According to the WLB, the Burma Government has yet to develop and implement the means to address the role of the Burma Army in conflict-related sexual violence. Despite the disproportionate harm that comes to women as a result of armed conflict, women continue to be almost entirely excluded from Burma’s peace process.

These matters are worsened by the fact that the government has been unable to counter the longstanding and systemic impunity of the Burma Army.  The 2015 rape and murder of two Kachin teachers demonstrates how the Burma Army will go to great lengths – including threatening counter lawsuits against their accusers – to deny any involvement in sexual assault. With a 25% voting bloc in parliament and the control of key ministries, the Burma Army will continue to be allowed to avoid any democratic oversight and accountability for the actions of its members.

During the July 6 meeting, Burma Government representatives defended the implementation of the four “protection of race and religion laws” that have received considerable criticism for being discriminatory towards women. In a report to the UN Committee, Amnesty International has noted that these laws are in direct violation of CEDAW. For example, the Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Law and the Population Control Healthcare Law are both clear attempts to regulate marriage for Buddhist women to non-Buddhist partners and to enforce mandatory “birth spacing” requirements on married couples respectively. The report further illustrates how the vagueness and tone of the legislation suggests that it may be used to further persecute religious minorities such as the Rohingya.

In the event of sexual violence, along with other forms of gender discrimination, women are often unlikely to receive an adequate legal recourse. A recent report on women’s access to formal and informal justice systems found that women, especially those in rural areas, are unaware of formal avenues for justice and instead rely upon customary traditions, which often exclude women from legal proceedings. Further, existing women’s and human rights institutions, such as the Myanmar National Committee for Women’s Affairs and the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC), have been found to lack independent mandates, or have yet to demonstrate genuine support for women’s rights, and in the case of the MNHRC, cannot guarantee confidentiality for women.

The testimonies of civil society organizations before the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women must be a wake up call for the Burma Government. Having ratified CEDAW, Burma is obligated to ensure the advancement of women in society and their protection from all forms of discrimination. Given that the Burma Army continues to disregard universal standards for women’s rights, all the while enjoying complete impunity, it is clear that Burma has a long way to go in its obligation to ending discrimination against women. Yet despite this major obstacle, it is the NLD-led Government’s responsibility to address and begin to rectify the very serious concerns highlighted by Burma’s civil society to overturn entrenched practices of discrimination and violence against women.

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