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  • Kim Merritt

An International Look at Women's Rights from Inside Myanmar's IDP Camps

On paper, it’s easy to assume that women’s rights in Myanmar are more advanced than elsewhere: their most prominent political figure is a woman, the 2008 Constitution guarantees equal rights, education, and legal protection, and unlike Western cultures women traditionally keep their name in marriage.

But a popular Burmese proverb translating to “If you beat your wife until her bones are broken, she will love you more,” suggests there’s still a long way to go.

This couldn’t be more apparent than among the women living in Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps in Myanmar, where the country’s larger gender issues are only amplified.

In January I visited two government-restricted IDP camps near Shan State’s Kutkai township with the International Rescue Committee. Similar to a refugee camp, an IDP camp is for those who’ve been forced to flee their home due to violence, but unlike refugees they remain within their home country.

These two camps have a combined population of 409, including 221 females, providing only a microscopic look at the problems women face within Myanmar’s rural areas. But I feel it’s important to share some of what I learned to help us move the international conversation about women’s rights and gender equality forward.

Women’s Rights in Myanmar

The most publicized story out of Myanmar is the ongoing crisis of the Rohingya, an ethnic minority who lack citizenship and basic human rights within the country. In August 2017 a violent campaign swept through the northwestern Rakhine State, devastating an entire ethnic group of almost one million people. For the Rohingya women there were reports of rape and torture, as their husbands were murdered and their children ripped from their arms and thrown into the flames of their burning homes.

This “ethnic genocide” has undoubtedly caused an impact on women’s equality within the country. In the United Nations’ Gender Inequality Index which measures gender inequalities in reproductive health, empowerment, and economic status, Myanmar ranked 148 out of 189 countries in 2018. That’s down 42 spots from their previous year’s ranking of 106.

But the inequality doesn’t stop with the Rohingya. Even with Aung San Suu Kyi holding one of the highest offices as State Counsellor, women’s representation in parliament is one of the lowest in Southeast Asia at around 10%. In making strides towards a more democratic leadership, the country remains under partial military rule, automatically giving the male-dominated military 25 percent of seats in all governing bodies.

Despite any laws that do exist, the truth is that with a political, legal, and criminal system dominated by men such laws are rarely enforced. We learned while visiting the IDP camps that along with injustices on a national level, women in rural IDP camps face additional threats to their safety and dignity every single day.

Gender Based Violence

Marital rape and spousal abuse are still legal in Myanmar, but activists are looking to change that with the Protection of Violence Against Women Act. It’s been stalled in parliament since originally drafted in 2013, but the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement recently announced that could change in 2019.

Within IDP camps this type of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is often exacerbated, as the lack of livelihood opportunities often leads to drug and alcohol abuse as coping mechanisms for the men. With a legal system that doesn’t protect its victims, this type of violence is not only accepted but also largely normalized.

But it’s not just partners who threaten the safety and dignity of women in IDP camps. The possibility of sexual violence and assault exists outside of the camps as well. Women reported that the escalated military presence around IDP camps have made them feel unsafe, making tasks such as collecting firewood, walking to the river to wash clothes, or obtaining basic medical attention a huge risk. And their fears are certainly warranted. A highly-publicized event in 2015 has led numerous parties to believe that the violent rape and murder of two Kachin teachers was conducted by Burmese soldiers, though they have never been formally accused or punished.

Rape survivors in Myanmar are likely to face extreme social stigmas or even fines and banishment from their communities. If a child is born from rape, the child is not recognized by the community and raised as an outsider. All of this leads to countless women not speaking out about rape for fear of being dismissed or worse, facing retaliation.

This is troubling considering how many cases go unreported, but perhaps what’s even more troubling is that of those reported victims, 508 were adults and 897 were children.

The rise in rape cases among children is an entirely different story, but one that is also gaining attention within the country.

Human Trafficking

Despite an anti-trafficking law passed in 2005, as of 2018 Myanmar is considered a tier 3 (the lowest tier) in the U.S. State Department’s annual report on human trafficking. Due to the location of the camps we visited being on a popular trade route only 70 miles from China, women and girls in the IDP camps are especially subject to sex trafficking and forced marriages to Chinese men. Sometimes they’ll be forced to deliver a kid then returned to Myanmar after giving birth, or sold again so the man can make up some of his financial loss. According to UN Women, women are trafficked as a bride in 8 out of 10 cases in the northern Shaan State, while the remaining 20 percent are trafficked solely to give birth.

Women’s Healthcare

Pregnant women in Myanmar face a much higher risk of death and disability than those in neighboring countries. A 2016 study shows that 2,800 women die each year during child birth in the country, compared to around 700 in the U.S. That number is remarkably high, especially considering that the U.S. is one of the highest among industrialized countries.

This gives Myanmar one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in Southeast Asia at 282 deaths per 100,000 live births. In these remote IDP camps which are often tucked into the mountains along government-controlled roads, mobilization remains a huge hurdle. Paired with high costs of treatment, both prevent women from receiving proper medical attention and timely treatment. Volunteers and international NGO employees regularly transport mothers to delivery centers and provide delivery kits for those who can’t make it.

Seeking Support in Safe Spaces

Awareness of gender based violence and inequality definitely appears to be increasing in Myanmar. International NGOs are prominent, partnering with local organizations to further their reach and impact. Together they offer women emergency support, empowerment training, psychosocial services, and provide female-only safe spaces for women to come together and speak out.

Just outside of the IDP camps we visited one of these safe spaces, where women from various camps gather to seek support and talk about gender issues. On average around 10–12 women from each nearby camp attend this safe space, interacting and bonding with women from other camps while learning new livelihood skills.

We asked the group of 20 or so women to share the most important thing they’ve learned while visiting the safe space.

One soft-spoken woman told us how relieved she was to learn that GBV isn’t normal, nor does she need to tolerate it. Another woman talked about the usefulness in learning new skills such as soap making and prenatal care. A third shared how grateful she was to learn of the importance in seeking timely care after a rape.

Similarly, women’s empowerment and protection volunteer groups in the northern Shan State hold group activities such as learning how to make soap, oils, keychains, herbal remedies, knit hats, and clothing, not only to teach livelihood skills but also to incentivize women in the local communities to attend. As we were leaving, volunteers were laying an old mattress on the concrete floor in preparation of a self-defense class, where they were expecting between 10–20 women from up to 20 different villages to show.

All of the women seemed empowered by the things they’ve learned, and many told us how they share their newfound knowledge with others at camp, bringing new members to the safe space week after week.

International Women’s Day in Safe Spaces

The program leader told us how they planned to celebrate International Women’s Day this year with 16 days of activism. Each day consists of different games, quizzes, and role-playing scenarios geared at promoting education around GBV, as well as teaching valuable new skills such as empowerment and self-defense.

Along the same lines of this year’s #BalanceForBetter theme, activists are aware that preventing and ending GBV doesn’t stop with women. The IRC takes a more holistic approach to preventing GBV by including and educating men during coffee and tea sessions. The women we spoke with said that the men in their camps seem to be receptive to these sessions, which they believe has made a difference in how the men treat them.

While emphasizing the importance of international awareness and advocacy, one volunteer asked us visitors what we would do to help, now that we’ve seen and heard about their experiences.

A Look Towards The Future

For most of us, Myanmar is a world away and rarely at the forefront of our minds. But on a day where we make it a point to talk about and fight for gender equality on a global scale, it’s crucial to recognize places where women’s rights are trailing far behind even the most basic human rights.

So while we all take a moment to reflect on International Women’s Day, discussing the #MeToos, the pay gaps, and the undeniable progress we continue to make in our Western societies, let’s not forget to focus on the international aspect of today. Let’s take a moment to advocate for the women who are still finding their voice, for the women who are still fighting for basic human rights, and the women who are fighting for their lives across the globe.


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