Women in need of a bigger voice

ASEAN+ December 19, 2012 00:00

By Onravee Tangmeesang
Special t

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UN agency advises govt to tackle gender issues more effectively


Some tremendous changes have been taking place in Myanmar as it comes out of decades of military rule. 
The biggest change was when pro-democracy icon and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and elected into the Parliament. Yet, despite this significant step, there are hundreds of thousands of women in Myanmar whose voices have not been heard. 
Having lived in a male-dominated society for most of their lives, women are rarely seen as anything more than carers at home. 
John Hendra, assistant secretary-general for policy and programme at the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), praised the country for its moves in recognising gender equality, but remained cautious about the several challenges the country has to work with. 
The first challenge is to get more women into leadership positions.
“Myanmar has good indicators, stating that they have achieved the UN’s Millennium Development Goals on gender equality, but challenges remain, for example, in leadership positions and political participation of women,” Hendra said.
Even though Myanmar already has a famous and strong opposition leader, it should start looking at allowing women to play a stronger a role in politics. So far, only 5 per cent of the female population in Myanmar are in leadership positions. 
For instance, Dr Myat Myat Ohn Khin, a Minister for Social Affairs on gender issues as well as disaster risk reduction, is the only woman among 36 ministers. 
“I hope they will soon have many more women as MPs. They need to focus much more in getting women in leadership positions,” Hendra stressed.
Evidence shows that when there are more women working as lawmakers, laws focusing on social protection, health and education tend to get through much more easily. 
The second challenge is the rising rate of HIV infections. Myanmar has the second highest number of infections in the region after Thailand and at least a third of these cases are women. 
According to the Asian Development Bank, Myanmar is said to have an estimated 216,000 people living with HIV/Aids. 
The third challenge is that Myanmar still has a very high rate of deaths at childbirth, though no specific statistics are available yet. 
Though the Bangkok-based UN Women has yet to establish itself in Myanmar, it is working closely with partnering agencies to do an assessment of the situation faced by women in Myanmar.
“We will help them come up with new regulations because some of their laws are outdated,” Hendra said, referring to laws that do not conform with the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.
Another issue UN Women is working on is engaging women to become builders of peace in the country. 
Although Myanmar is undergoing a transformation, violence against ethnic minorities, particularly the Kachin, continues. 
“Women are usually absent from the peace table, peacekeeping forces or mediation,” Hendra said.
UN Women is currently training women to become mediators in Myanmar to help build their capacity in playing a more active role at creating sustainable peace.
Hendra said that Myanmar government officials acknowledge the importance of women’s issues in the country. “However, what really important is what happens on the ground and there is not much change yet,” he added. 

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