By Carolina van der Mensbrugghe
“Why are you interested in learning more about women’s rights?” This icebreaker kicked off our training on women’s rights advocacy in Myanmar, and in response, one participant turned to me and said, “I used to love listening to a Burmese pop artist’s music until he came out with a song that compared women to pigs—lyrics noted that women would eat anything and everything if they didn’t have noses.” After noting the inherent misogyny in this Burmese “Blurred Lines,” she continued, “My brothers didn’t believe me when I told them our society isn’t equal, until I reminded them that they never have to ask permission to leave our house unaccompanied, never have to wash the dishes or do laundry. They agree with me now. These are moments I realized how important women’s rights are, and this is why I am here.”
On May 21, the Leitner Center helped to facilitate a dialogue on the international human rights legal framework with women’s rights activists in Myanmar. Our presentations were aimed at providing participants with ways to compliment international advocacy with the multi-pronged domestic strategies. As my fellow Crowley Scholar, Zahava Moerdler, discussed in part one of this two-part series on the Leitner Center’s recent training, we sought to empower and collaborate with women’s rights activists in Myanmar during our time there. As Myanmar undergoes its transition towards democratization, our capacity-building dialogue took advantage of a newfound space for dialogue on the nature and potential of human rights advocacy.
Our training also coincided with build up to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination’s Against Women’s (CEDAW Committee) review of Myanmar’s implementation of its international gender equality obligations, took place on July 6 . This UN mechanism is a crucial international legal tool for advancing women’s rights due to the obligations it places on governments to enforce the treaty mandate, which enshrines the commitment to end gender-based discrimination in all sectors of society at the hands of both public and private actors. One of the civil society NGO participants, The Women’s League of Burma (WLB), had recently submitted its shadow report to the CEDAW Committee detailing gender rights violations, in particular the ongoing impunity for acts of sexual violence in ethnic conflict areas. WLB was notably eager to discuss strategies that representatives would present in Geneva at the CEDAW Committee review to stop these grave international crimes from continuing.
After a brief overview of the international legal framework, the focus of the May 21 dialogue narrowed to address how this framework protects gender equality. The discussion opened by asking the participants, “Do we need women’s rights when we already have human rights?” This question set the groundwork for an extended discussion on how certain laws and patriarchal values within Burma’s society have a disproportionately negative impact on women, including when intersectional social identities, including LGTI, rural and ethnic minorities, overlap.
A participant from Akhaya, an organization dedicated to sexual health education, spoke of the detrimental impact the withholding of reproductive health has had on women in local communities. While health education is afforded to all, women are at best not taught about changes occurring during puberty and, at worst, are told that their menstrual cycles render them impure, with the ability to steal the hpoun (more of less, a concept of “masculine power”) of men. While rural areas overall experience a greater impact, the participant noted that these views were pervasive and common in urban areas and all socio-economic backgrounds. This anecdote, among others, reinforced CEDAW’s importance in articulating a state’s obligation to not only enforce, but also to fully implement measures that eliminate practices entrenching gender equality.
The remainder of the dialogue consisted of unpacking how international law defines and protects against sexual violence in conflict, domestic violence, sexual harassment and damaging cultural norms and traditions that violate women’s right to marriage and family planning. When discussing international legal protections against domestic violence and sexual harassment, many participants expressed frustration towards government inaction on these issues. The government’s unwillingness to “interfere” in domestic partnerships or deal with “harmless” sexual remarks led participants to believe these were issues that place no imperative on action in the domestic civic space, let alone international spheres.
The solidarity among all the women as they shared of anecdotes addressing frustrations towards rights violations was palpable and, at times, infused with plucky and insightful humor. While discussing the substantial impact sexual harassment has on women’s career prospects and work life, one participant asked whether “mansplaining” is included as a violation under the law.
Participants were empowered by the knowledge that international law obligates the government of Myanmar to end impunity for all acts of gender discrimination—including those that occur in the bedroom or the workplace, spaces often deemed outside government oversight. The international legal framework by no means provided the solution, but rather supported and strengthened the strategies devised to develop meaningful policy reform in these ill-attended areas.
The conversation subsequently shifted towards connecting interaction with UN with domestic advocacy. Participants cited the current climate of cultural norms and traditions, as the major impediment to gaining traction with local officials and society at large—women’s initiatives and activists are often de-prioritized and segregated from overall peace process, investment projects and development deals shaping the country’s future.
Change in this respect, must come from within, and by one mind at a time. However, by the end of the training, the participants discovered renewed excitement and newfound tools to engage with and apply pressure in solidarity with the international community.
Carolina van der Mensbrugghe is a 3L at Fordham Law School. She was a 2015-16 Crowley Scholar in International Human Rights.
Photo credit: Carolina van der Mensbrugghe
The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.