The Situation for Women in Myanmar

The Norwegian Delegation to the UN organized an expert-level meeting for UN Security Council members on 12 May 2021, in collaboration with the Norwegian Embassy in Myanmar.

May Sabe Phyu, Director of Myanmar Gender Equality Network, and Nang Moet Moet, Joint Secretary General of the Women's League of Burma, gave briefings on the situation of women in Myanmar since the February 1 Coup.


Statement by May Sabe Phyu, Director of Myanmar Gender Equality Network, on the Situation of Women in Myanmar since the February 1 Coup.

Thank you for inviting me to update the expert group of Security Council on the situation facing women in Myanmar since the military executed a coup on February 1. I am May Sabe Phyu, director of Gender Equality Network and I am representing Myanmar women human rights defenders, including women’s organizations, alliances and networks working to promote women, peace and security and ethnic minority rights.

As you all know, Myanmar recently descended into violent conflict after a military Coup D’état overthrew the democratically-elected civilian government on February 1st. Since then, people from all walks of life - men, women, young people, civil servants, farmers and factory workers - have taken to the streets across Myanmar to show their angry dissent.

Our right to protest peacefully has been denied by the military’s violent crackdown, including violent dispersal, nightly arrests, torture, killing, and open firing on protestors, leading to at least 769 deaths, of which 48 were women. Over 4700 have been arrested, 1489 of whom are women. Despite engaging in nonviolent protests, thousands of civilians, including women and girls, across Myanmar have been brutally assaulted, with widespread arbitrary detention, sexual abuse of women and girls in detention and extrajudicial killing.

While only one side is armed with lethal weapons, democracy protesters, young and old, will fight until the military is driven from power no matter how long it takes. The people of Myanmar do not recognize and need not follow the laws or authority of the illegitimate military government. The military has passed these laws to justify arresting more people, oppressing and terrifying us. But we are not afraid. Though some of us might get arrested, there are many others who will continue to fight.

To contextualize the current crisis for women, I should emphasize that Myanmar, in part due to its long rule by a male-dominated military, is a deeply patriarchal society. My organization has worked for many years alongside other women’s rights organizations to dismantle the long-standing discriminatory gender norms that have negatively impacted women and girls. Over the last decade, the situation for Myanmar’s women has been slowly but steadily improving.

Given this military’s record of using sexual violence as a weapon of war, we fear that the country’s progress regarding women’s rights is at great risk. The return to military rule, and the subsequent human rights, economic and humanitarian crisis, threatens the advancement of women’s empowerment and gender equality and has literally turned back the clock.

Despite this, or maybe because of this, women and women’s civil society organizations (CSOs) have been at the forefront of efforts to restore democracy. The Security Council must support Myanmar’s women and ensure that they are fully engaged in any political or peace process to resolve the crisis.

Women’s leadership and representation in the protest movement against the coup

Women civil servants were the first to strike in protest and call for a return to democracy. The first protesters were the mostly-female Ministry of Health employees, followed by the predominantly female Ministry of Education employees. Workers at other ministries followed suit, initiating what became the CDM. Gender disaggregated data, available for 3000 of the 6000 civil servants suspended by the military, shows that 72% are women. Just this week, over 9000 university employees were dismissed and 85% were women.

The first union to strike was the Women Garment Workers Union and a woman has since been leading the General Strike Committee. During the first weeks of protests, an estimated 60% of protestors were women. Women also were on the frontline providing food, transport and emergency health care to peaceful protestors who were brutally attacked and even killed by security forces.

What this overview demonstrates is that women understand the very real danger the military poses to their lives and autonomy. The international community must listen to and work directly with women on the ground that have so much to lose from a reimposition of military rule.

Impact of the coup on women and women’s rights organizations

The security forces’ tactics have become increasingly gendered, with women being violently abused during arrest, or forced to humiliate themselves in public by walking on their hands and knees. Reports of violence against female detainees, including sexual violence, have increased, although clear information remains difficult to obtain. Public television displayed images of two women that security forces had tortured, something that no normal military would do and which is reminiscent of ISIS practices.

In fact, the first CDM fatality was an 18-year-old woman, who was shot in the head. Since then, 48 women and girls, ranging in age from 7 to 77, have been killed by security forces, though the number is likely higher. Amongst the women killed was leading woman human rights defender, Ms. Khu Khu Celina.

Of the almost 5000 detainees, about 1500 are women. Many of those detained are women human rights defenders and journalists targeted for arrest, including Ms. Thin Thin Aung, founder of Women for Justice, who is still in custody. The remaining women’s human rights defenders and journalists have had to either flee the country or go into hiding.

With the disruption and economic paralysis caused by the coup and ensuing violence, on top of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic security is completely compromised. People are losing their livelihoods. In some cases, single parents and breadwinners have died, leaving families in an extremely precarious situation. When livelihoods suffer, women and girls suffer disproportionally. They carry a greater level of family burdens, and are at increased risk of physical, sexual, economic, and psychological violence.

When the military executed its coup, Myanmar was in the midst of fighting COVID-19, which disproportionally impacted women since the industries and services most affected by lockdowns were female-dominated. In fact, the consequences for women were so devastating that the previous government had centered women in its economic recovery plan, a signal of the slow but steady progress I mentioned earlier.

The coup has up-ended all COVID-19 recovery efforts and pushed Myanmar deeper into economic crisis. The UNDP estimates that 12 million people in Myanmar could slip back into extreme poverty, which would then total nearly 50% of the population, a level not seen since 2005. As another example, before the COVID-19 crisis, the garment sector employed 900,000 workers, more than 85% of them women. Due to COVID-19, 200,000 of these jobs were lost and the coup eliminated another 200,000, meaning that approximately 370,000 women have lost their livelihood in just one year in just one sector.

Another major issue for women is the collapse of public health. Access to sexual and reproductive health services has become exceptionally difficult since women are reluctant, for obvious reasons, to use military hospitals and most cannot afford private hospitals. This will have significant impacts on women’s long-term health, such as maternal and infant mortality.

Finally, the coup has pushed women’s CSOs to the brink of extinction. Many organization’s leaders have been arrested and their offices raided, and several have been outlawed. Lack of access to cash is making implementation of activities close to impossible. A recent assessment of women’s CSOs showed that: 75% believed their staff to be at risk; 52% had ceased operations; 38% were functioning at very limited capacity; and 90% could not function normally. Women’s CSOs have been instrumental to strengthening democratic space in Myanmar, delivering essential services and partnering with the UN and other development organizations to further women’s rights. Yet most women CSOs will have to close permanently if the situation does not return to normal soon.

After almost 100 days, the coup and increasingly brutal crackdown has stretched thin the resources of CDM protesters and had a devastating multi-sector impact on women. But the Myanmar people will fight to the end, no matter the risk. With no resolution in sight, the international community must provide immediate humanitarian aid and emergency support to people on the ground, especially women, who are suffering the most.

Women’s involvement in establishing a new federal democratic union in Myanmar

Women have also been at the forefront of promising efforts to build an inclusive federal democratic union in Myanmar. This involvement represents a historic change and signals what could be possible with greater acceptance of women’s leadership in the political sphere. The National Unity Government, established on April 16th as the only legitimate democratic government of Myanmar, includes eight female cabinet members, or 30% of the total, a truly historic achievement. It also established, for the first time, a Ministry for Women, Youth and Children’s Affairs. Women have also been leading voices for inclusion, with women ministers issuing public apologies for not doing more to protect the Rohingya and pushing for greater inclusion of Rohingya in the federal democratic union. The charter drafted to establish this union, thanks to women’s advocacy, contains significant gender equality guarantees. The world must endorse this truly legitimate government representing the will and interests of the Myanmar people.

Recommendations for a gender-sensitive response from the Security Council

My testimony highlights the extremely dangerous situation for women in Myanmar and urges you to place women, who have been front and center in the democracy movement, front and center in any negotiated solution to the crisis. The Security Council must act immediately and decisively, since the coup represents nothing short of a catastrophe which will have consequences for generations to come.

If this situation continues, violence will only escalate. There will be more murders, disappearances, torture, and livelihoods torn apart. Vulnerable groups, including women, will suffer the most.

This regime will not back down unless it is forced to do so. The military has all the weapons and cares only about maintaining its grip on power. Decades of military impunity have convinced them that they will never be held to account. This time, the world needs to ensure that the Myanmar people no longer have to suffer from military abuses and that the military’s criminal acts are punished. The world must not sit back and watch innocent people killed.

The longer this dangerous situation is allowed to continue, the harder it will be to loosen the military’s grip and the more difficult it will be for the international community to play a decisive role. The Security Council has a mandate to ensure international peace and security, protect women in conflict situations, and ensure that women are integrally involved in peace efforts. The threat to peace in Myanmar is glaringly obvious, and the threat to security in the region is palpable.

Specifically, the Security Council should immediately:

· Act to end the violence against and arrest of peaceful protesters and innocent civilians and the release of all detainees, including elected political officials;

· Call an Emergency Special Session to push for a Uniting for Peace Resolution to immediately halt the enormous damage, economic paralysis, murder, torture, unlawful arrests, and blatant human rights abuses inflicted by the military;

· Provide immediate assistance from UN offices currently operating in Myanmar in order to protect the people and provide humanitarian aid;

· Refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court since many human rights abuses committed amount to international crimes.

Most importantly, the Security Council should ensure that gender concerns are front and center, including by:

·  Taking action to end the use of sexual violence by security forces against female detainees;

·  Using all means to stop the arrest of women human rights defenders and women journalists, end the assaults and abusive tactics against women protestors, and secure the release of women detainees; 

·  Ensure that women and women CSOs are meaningfully included in all formal and informal political and peace processes aimed at restoring democracy.

Now is an inflection point – the Security Council must ensure that Myanmar does not fall further into chaos and return to darker days. There can be NO doubt that the military is guilty of countless crimes against its people and blatantly disregards human rights.

We ask you then to please listen to us, see us, hear us and act now. Choose to support us, choose to find a way to stand with us, choose not to turn away and ignore the hell into which the people of Myanmar have been cast. Stand with us. Challenge with us. Please help us.