Women in Conflicted Areas of Myanmar

by Cchavi Vasisht - 17 March, 2023, 12:00 901 Views 0 Comment

The situations of conflict and instabilities often result in intensifying the existing discrimination, may it be ethnic, religious or gender-based discrimination. Myanmar is no exception to this. Women comprise 51.8 per cent of Myanmar’s 51.49 million total population. Despite a slightly higher proportion of the female population, women in Myanmar have been exposed to gender-based discrimination in the form of political, economic and social inequalities. The February 2021 military coup exposed women and children of Myanmar to torture, rape, arbitrary arrests and killings. The coup also heightened females’ vulnerability to conflict-related sexual violence as instruments of war; according to UN Women, women were forced into early marriages, lost their educational and employment opportunities, were exposed to poor health and hygienic conditions, forced into human trafficking, and most gravely, exposed to sexual violence and exploitation.

Women have been targets of the military’s crackdown. Free Expression Myanmar (FEM) reported that more than 300 women and girls, including nurses, students, teachers, activities, and others, have been killed since the coup. While some were killed for protesting against the regime, a few others were killed for protecting the protestors. In another report by the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), the police and military troops killed a total of 2,327 people, out of which 308 were women. In addition, the military has used sexual assault as a systematic weapon to punish detained pro-democracy protesters. FEM noted that around 17 women and girls were reportedly raped and killed. The NUCC also identified 12 cases of rape and killing and another 40 cases in which women have reportedly been raped and killed. In addition, the military prison staff have beaten and tortured female political prisoners. The data showed that the regime had arrested 16,432 people, out of which 3,434 were female. According to a letter that was leaked from Mandalay’s Obo Prison, at least 30 women detainees were being held separately and tortured. The letter added that the women have also been banned from taking showers and have to use water from the toilets to wash. This reflects the colonial way of torturing the prisoners by isolating them, forcing them into unhygienic conditions and providing little to no food for survival, in addition to the beatings, which is a clear violation of the prisoners’ human rights.

Furthermore, the military has also reduced state spending on health and welfare services and limited support services for survivors of this violence, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance report released in March 2022. The collapsed health system and attacks on hospitals have further challenged women’s access to healthcare services, especially with regard to their menstrual hygiene. Traditionally, menstruation was considered taboo, which women faced because they had dirty bodies.[1] Maggie Schmitt, a researcher at Columbia University’s Gender, Adolescent Transitions and Environment (GATE) programme, stated that displaced women face period poverty, as they cannot afford or get access to menstrual products, clean toilets and facilities for changing and washing. In conflict-affected areas, basic items are short in supply, and the military has blocked the transit of essential supplies as part of the ‘four cuts’ strategy. Despite several groups working to distribute sanitary pads to displaced people, they face constant risks in reaching out to displaced regions.

Another area which requires immediate attention is the involvement of women in the drug market. Myanmar, being part of the golden crescent, has witnessed an increase in opium production since the coup and women play a wide variety of active roles within the drugs market. Women who use drugs, women who grow opium, as well as women engaging in sex work and/or being involved in the drug market. Finally, the military has also started recruiting women into its forces. The military invited women aged 18 to 25 who have completed Grade 9 to join the military’s reserve force. The military has been making annual intakes for women to complete cadet training programs since 2014. Even the wives of soldiers living in military barracks were dubbed “female officers” and made to undergo basic combat training.

While some women are recruited within the military barracks, most of the Myanmar women have played a crucial role in resisting the military since it seized power in February 2021. Women led many non-violent protests and continued demonstrating their opposition to military rule. In addition, women have joined the armed revolution in large numbers and formed women-only resistance groups. The Myaung Women Warriors in the Sangaing region is one of the hundreds of armed resistance groups that have emerged. The Women Allied Forces is another group formed consisting of members from Yangon, Mandalay, Monywa, and Sagaing. Women also joined the resistance groups as the coup, and the pandemic hindered their educational plans, and they experienced displacement. Around 580,000 women have lost employment since the military takeover. Women are equally living in the forests and enduring the same difficulties which men face. They are nursing the injured, working as a transcriptionist, serving as human resources coordinators and undertaking administrative roles under various ethnic organisations. They are also involved in training resistance forces, such as a former karate champion using her skills to train Chin resistance forces. Furthermore, the NUG has involved women in eight out of 17 ministries and formed the Ministry of Women, Youths and Child Affairs to pay attention to Myanmar women’s affairs.

Al Jazeera narrated the accounts of women in Myanmar by using pseudonyms. The article noted that women have actively used their femininity as a tool of resistance. Women have waved flags made of sarongs, used sanitary pads across streets to humiliate security forces, and stopped them in their tracks. Internationally, their work and contributions are being recognised. Time Magazine added two Burmese women to their list of Top 100 Influential Persons in the world in 2022. Esther Ze Naw Bamvo and Ei Thinzar Maung were added as they led people to the very first anti-junta protest in Yangon.

This is not the first time that women in Myanmar have taken part in a revolution. Earlier also, they were part of armed revolutions; however, this time, they have transformed their identities and played a prominent role in the armed revolution and their fight against the existing inequalities. The coup helped stimulate revolution against these entrenched views underlying political and social inequities. With the introduction of media and the internet since the democratic transition in 2010, women were exposed to the ideas of gender equality and women’s rights. The knowledge of women’s rights worldwide and the rise of women’s rights activists and organisations helped women in Myanmar to raise their voices. As Daw Aung San Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy (NLD) to power, the women’s changed that outlook to the traditional understanding of their role and leadership.

Nevertheless, women were still subordinated to men. Due to traditional beliefs about gender roles, women could not achieve the equivalent levels of leadership and participation as men. A study published in 2019 by the Peace Research Institute Oslo reported that overall, women have played subordinate roles, that male leaders failed to recognise women’s abilities and ignored their ideas, and that women’s potential to contribute to peace in Myanmar was “greatly undervalued”. However, the traditional social structures continue to keep the nature of armed resistance gendered, with only a few women serving on the front lines or in decision-making roles. A recent United States Institute for Peace report found that women were under-represented in leadership positions within resistance-linked community policing groups and were rarely allowed to participate in patrols or arrests.

Therefore, in addition to opposing the military takeover, women took this current political crisis as a window of opportunity to reveal the inequalities in society and reshape the narrative of women’s role within it. Women’s labour unions, garment workers, health care providers, and teachers were the first to protest. There is also cooperation between different ethnic women’s groups in response to the military takeover. They used social media platforms such as Facebook to circulate their perspectives and mobilise the people for action. The Gender Equality Network, an NGO, estimated that 70–80 per cent of the movement’s leaders were women. And Women’s League of Burma reported that about 60 per cent of protesters were women. The women are bringing innovative tactics, such as hoisting traditional women’s sarongs and undergarments over the streets to stop the advancing troops.[2]

The images of females participating in every anti-coup activity are widely visible. Hundreds of women have sacrificed their lives and been indiscriminately subjected to oppression, arrests and killings of dissidents. The Spring Revolution spells out clearly that “this revolution shall not succeed without women”. Women in Myanmar cannot slide back to living with inequalities and discrimination. Their role and contribution to the national movement against military rule must be recognised, and also the injustices done against them must be addressed with utmost priority. As the ASEAN chair, Indonesia should uphold the Regional Plan of Action on Women, Peace and Security (WPS), which was set up by ASEAN and ensure that the ASEAN Committee on Women (ACW) work on the proposed plan to effectively bring justice to women in Myanmar and recognise their role in resolving conflict in the country.

[1] Study done by Geetika Pandya across four regions with 75 female participants revealed that women in Myanmar believed that menstruation occurs because women’s bodies are dirty and thereby face restrictions on mobility, diet and religious practices.


Cchavi Vasisht
Author is a Research Associate. Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi

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