In Verisk Maplecroft’s Women and Girls’ Rights Index 2017, Myanmar is ranked 44th out of 198 countries (where ranks closer to one denote greatest risk). This means that businesses and investors are at ‘high risk’ of association with practices that discriminate against, or otherwise infringe upon the rights of women and girls.
Myanmar has made significant progress on gender equality and women’s rights in recent years. However, significant shortcomings remain. The country’s ongoing transition from decades of successive military regimes to semi-democratic forms of governance presents significant opportunities to improve on gender equality and women’s rights. The 2008 constitution, which underpins the transition, contains explicit references to women’s rights, and the government is making some progress in aligning national legislation with such provisions.
However, current laws are not comprehensive enough to fully protect women and girls’ rights. Many provisions regarding women’s rights and gender equality remain vague, and in some cases, new laws threaten to undermine progress made. For example, the government enacted the Population Control Healthcare Law in 2015, which contains provisions that could infringe on protections for reproductive rights. Furthermore, laws protecting women from all forms of violence are inadequate, although a new law that would prohibit domestic violence and increase penalties for rape is currently being drafted.
National data suggests that that equal access to education for boys and girls is becoming more common, as well as increased levels of literacy among the female population. For example, results from the 2015 national census show that the proportion of school-age children attending school (ages 6-18) is nearly equal for both sexes. However, poverty, discriminatory practices and conflict continue to pose significant barriers to equality for girls and young women. Indeed, school attendance for both sexes begins to drop sharply after primary school age, going from about 82% at age 10 to 37%% for girls at age 16; the proportion for males at this age is slightly lower.
However, huge regional disparities exist in relation to educational attainment. For example, the share of girls to boys in education in Rakhine state was 70% compared with 115% in Kayin state. Female literacy of young women in conflict-affected Shan State is also the lowest in the country, at 59.4% compared to 92% at the national level.
Gender bias in employment remains problematic. Female participation in the labour market sits at 53.9% compared with 82.1% for men. Owing to the lack of economic opportunities at the local level, girls and young women from vulnerable ethnic minority communities often seek hazardous employment, including in road construction and building work.
Vulnerable women and girls are also at risk of human trafficking, which remains a significant problem. Poverty drives many young women from Myanmar to work in neighbouring Thailand in the garment manufacturing, agriculture and seafood processing industries, sometimes going through labour brokers who deceive them into conditions of forced labour. Women and girls in ethnic minority communities are also at high risk of physical and sexual abuse by security forces, often carried out with impunity.
Key policy priority areas of the government under State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi include the country’s peace process and increasing productivity in the agricultural sector. Conflict and poverty remain key obstacles for the advancement of women’s rights and gender equality, and any progress on these fronts will enable more effective implementation of government policies. At the same time, severe capacity constraints in government and problematic civil-military relations mean that progress is likely to continue at a slow pace, while gender and women’s rights issues frequently drop down the government’s agenda. The implementation of the National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women (2013-2022) has shown only slow progression.
As Myanmar continues to invite FDI, including in agriculture, foreign businesses can and should play a lead role in investing in the growing female workforce. Companies can do this by demonstrating a strong commitment to gender equality and ensuring working conditions in direct operations and supply chains are decent and equitable.