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YANGON, May 5 2012 (IPS) - While Aung San Suu Kyi enjoys iconic status in Myanmar (also known as Burma), women remain invisible in this country steeped in Buddhist tradition and emerging from decades of military rule.
“Her (Suu Kyi’s) image suggests that there is space for women,” Ma Thida, a surgeon who is also a director of the ‘Myanmar Independent’ weekly newspaper published from Yangon (also Rangoon), tells IPS. “She is a great example for all Burmese women.”
Ma Thida was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment in 1993 on charges of “endangering public peace, having contact with illegal organisations and distributing unlawful literature.” She was released after five years in the notorious Insein prison.
“Today, the overall situation seems better compared to two or three years ago, but it’s far from ideal,” says Ma Thida, one of thousands of women who have contributed to bringing about changes towards democracy in Burma.
According to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, an independent non-profit founded by former political prisoners living in exile and based out of the border town of Mae Sot in Thailand, there are 18 females among the 473 political prisoners in Myanmar.
On paper, women suffer no discrimination with restrictions on civil liberties applying equally to all, regardless of gender.
For example, in appointing or assigning duties to civil services personnel the constitution prescribes that there be no discrimination “based on race, birth, religion, and sex”, but it also says that “nothing shall prevent appointment of men to the positions that are suitable for men only.”
“At the moment we cannot still talk or discuss freely about gender discrimination or gender equality,” says a female rights activist who prefers not to be named because of her involvement in the campaign against the construction of the Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy River.
The controversial hydroelectric project, developed jointly by Myanmar’s power ministry, the privately-owned Asia World Company of Burma and China Power Investment Corporation, was suspended by Myanmar authorities last year, following protests.
“That controversial decision to suspend construction, which was welcomed by environment groups, was the result of protests held mostly by women,” the activist said.
“When Burmese official media reported the decision to suspend construction the women seemed to have disappeared because they were asked to sit on the ground while the cameras focused on government officials,” she said. “The presence of women in our society is extensive but we are still invisible.”
The same paradox extends through Myanmar’s political life in which women have been struggling behind the lines for years and are happy to take a back seat when it comes to leadership roles.
“Sometimes it’s not so easy to raise these kinds of issues even within women’s groups as the majority of women think that their role is within the family and that their role in society cannot change,” says Mon Mon Myat, a writer and women’s rights activist.
“In a male-dominated, Theravada Buddhist society there are many cultural barriers that limit women’s behaviour and functioning,” Mon Mon Myat told IPS.
“Female journalists, for example, cannot take pictures or videos of the audience, because they are not allowed to go up to vantage positions because as women they cannot stay above men or Buddhist monks,” explained Mon Mon Myat.
That cultural barrier contrasts sharply with the images of Suu Kyi waving or talking to people from a balcony at her house or at a party office.
Suu Kyi, according to Mon Mon Myat, is an exception because she is the daughter of Gen. Aung San, a venerated national hero closely associated with Myanmar’s independence movement.
In fact, Suu Kyi takes care to prefix her father’s name to hers, although the custom in Myanmar is for women to use their own given names through life without taking on the name of father or husband.
“Though she is a woman, Suu Kyi is a symbol of peace and democracy in our country. That is why we can see big crowds of monks and men strongly showing their support for her,” Mon Mon Myat said.
“The outlook of the country has to change if this country is going to be democratic, but for that there has to be more freedom in the media first,” says ‘Vic’, a 24-year-old writer who goes by that pen name.
Women activists and journalists who dared oppose the junta paid a heavy price with many of them systematically tortured, raped or killed by troops fighting a long war against ethnic militias in the Shan, Kachin and Karen states.
In 2002, the Shan Women’s Action Network denounced the systematic use of rape by the Burmese military in a report where some found the courage to speak out about their own experiences.
“It is still not possible to talk freely about rape cases committed by Burmese soldiers on ethnic women in remote areas,” said Mon Mon Myat.
In many cases, she said, women do not think of rape as gender discrimination but as a problem “of fate in a society that frowns on the weaker sex wearing inappropriate dress or going to inappropriate places.”
“In Myanmar, families may prefer to be silent about a rape, making it difficult for the victim to seek justice in the courts,” said Mon Mon Myat.
Women inside and outside Myanmar have been able to network through the Women’s League of Burma, an organisation of women drawn from 13 different ethnic groups that is “working for the advancement of the status of women towards a peaceful and just society.”
“Changing mindsets, especially among mid-level administrators and ordinary people is essential,” says Grace Swe Zin Htaik, a former actress who devotes herself to campaigning for health and gender issues. “It will take a long time before we achieve gender equality in Burma,” she told IPS.
Though poorly represented in legislative bodies and government positions, women like Mon Mon Myat draw hope for the future from the fact that females slightly outnumber males in Myanmar’s population, presently estimated at 55 million.
There is also the memory of better times before British colonial rule (1824–1948) when Myanmar followed a matriarchal system and women held rights to own property and hold high office.
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