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Promises Not Progress: Myanmar/Burma’s National Plan for Women Falls Short of Gender Equality and CEDAW

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Executive Summary

In late 2013, the Government of Burma/Myanmar (“the Government”) issued a National Strategic Action Plan for the Advancement of Women 2013-2022 (NSPAW) based in part on its obligations under the Convention to End All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Heralded as a “historic and essential step towards substantive equality between women and men,” NSPAW was released amidst a flurry of other governmental plans, strategies, promises, and actions ostensibly aimed at transforming the country into a democracy. However, conspicuously missing from these reforms, including NSPAW, were deeper systemic overhauls of the many legal, political, cultural and socio-economic barriers to the full enjoyment of human rights in Burma which must underpin any true democracy.

The issuance of NSPAW invites assessment of the state of gender equality in Burma, the prospects for NSPAW’s success in meeting its goals, and a comparison between NSPAW and Burma’s international legal obligations under CEDAW. Taking note of the need for such an assessment, as well as the opportunities presented by the forthcoming review of Burma by the CEDAW Committee in July 2016, this report by the Global Justice Center (GJC) and Leitner Center for International Law and Justice (Leitner Center) evaluates NSPAW against the reality for women on the ground in Burma and the Government’s legal obligations under CEDAW.

In short, the critical analysis in this report reveals that NSPAW’s provisions are aspirational and ambiguous, without clear guidance on implementation or benchmarks for meaningful evaluation. This report further demonstrates how NSPAW fails to meaningfully grapple with the structural barriers precluding gender equality—including the 2008 Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, decades of armed conflict and the continuing power of the military, antiquated laws and legal frameworks, and the difference between discrimination “in law” and discrimination “in effect”—all of which must be addressed in order to achieve substantive gender equality in Burma.

As this report shows, at its best NSPAW is an inadequate and amorphous effort to improve women’s experience in Burma without disruption to long-embedded power structures that insulate the country’s male-dominated elite. At its worst, NSPAW is a deceptive document that pays lip service to Burma’s CEDAW and other human rights obligations while actually entrenching gender inequality. Either way, NSPAW suffers from critical shortcomings related to its conceptualization, substantive content, and implementation. Specifically, this report identifies three ways that NSPAW falls short: (1) flawed conceptual foundation, in particular due to its incorporation of and reliance on existing systematic barriers to equality including the 2008 Constitution; (2) lack of practical, action-oriented provisions, as evidenced by the fact that two years after the issuance of NSPAW, no implementation plans have been developed or produced; and (3) absence of accountability through monitoring and evaluation.

Ultimately, NSPAW poses the threat of complacence—both on the part of the Government regarding the treatment of women and girls, as well as on the part of the international community in failing to critically evaluate the Government’s claims of progress. NSPAW is one plan of many in a pattern of cursory improvements to a deeply flawed system. It is GJC and the Leitner Center’s hope that this report, and in particular its recommendations, is a useful tool for all actors working in Burma, including the Government and civil society, to meaningfully address and challenge gender inequality in the country, including through the forthcoming CEDAW review.

Importantly, this report is not intended to be a comprehensive appraisal of women’s rights in Burma and instead examines certain salient substantive areas raised by the interaction of NSPAW, CEDAW and the current state of affairs. Similarly, the report only generally touches on the intense interconnectedness of the issues (e.g. decades on conflict implicate instability in women’s education and professional opportunities, which affect women’s opportunities to participate in political processes, which complicates the ability to earnestly address health, violence, and cultural issues only affecting women). However, we hope the report’s analytical framework can serve as a template for the meaningful consideration of the status of women in Burma through the lens of CEDAW.

The report is organized by substantive issue area, with reference to the articles of CEDAW addressing that issue (e.g. Adoption of a Legal Definition of Discrimination (Articles 1, 2); Women and Education (Article 10); Eliminating Negative Practices, Stereotypes, and Media Portrayals (Articles 5, 15 and General Recommendation 21). Each substantive section of the report is broken up into four smaller sections covering: (1) Burma’s legal obligations under CEDAW; (2) the current situation on the ground in Burma; (3) analysis of NSPAW in light of CEDAW and the current situation; and (4) recommendations for the Government to bring itself into full compliance with CEDAW and to meet its commitment to gender equality.