Competing trends in women’s rights in Myanmar

What are the prospects for gender equality in Myanmar?

In the 2010s, the Myanmar government made moves to comply with international obligations on women’s rights. The government launched a strategic plan for women’s advancement, reformed some laws, and collaborated with civil society organizations to draft legislation to combat gender and sexual violence. At the same time, official initiatives to protect “race and religion” by curtailing liberal rights—such as freedom of religion and freedom to marry—enjoy support among the majority community.

What are the prospects for gender equality in Myanmar? Our research explores public attitudes toward women’s roles in order to shed light on this question. We analyze two of the first nationally-representative surveys relevant to political research in the country: the Asia Foundation’s 2014 survey of “Civic Knowledge and Values in a Changing Society” and the first round of the Asian Barometer Survey (ABS) conducted in 2015.

Our analysis shows that Burmese people tend to hold conservative views about women’s roles. In the Asia Foundation Survey, 70% of the respondents say that men make better leaders in politics and business, and 39% consider it more important for boys than girls to receive a university education. In the Asian Barometer Survey, a substantial share (34% of men and 43% of women) agree with the statement that women should not be involved in politics as much as men and the majority (63% of the men and 50% of the women) express a preference for a boy child.

In both surveys, gender-related attitudes are not associated with age. Figure 1 and 2 below ('Women should not be in politics' and 'preference for boy'), based on the Asian Barometer surveys, shows that a similar share of both young and old respondents believe that women should not be involved in politics and express preference for boy children, which implies that support for gender equality is unlikely to grow due merely to generational change, as the younger population replaces the older one.

In addition, we examine the extent to which attitudes toward women’s roles are connected to other aspects of political culture, such as traditional values—including familism, deference, and conflict-avoidance—and views about the liberal principles—such as equality, liberty, separation of powers, freedom to associate, and pluralism—that support successful democracies. We find that gender-related attitudes are strongly associated with measures of traditionalism and authoritarian attitudes, but not with religiosity, as shown in Figure 3 (below).

As long as public opinion on women’s roles remains conservative, and support for traditional and authoritarian values persist, there is likely to be support for nationalism and skepticism of moves toward gender equality in Myanmar. People’s attitudes may change quickly, however. In other countries, feminist movements used liberal freedoms to organize and promote cultural changes favoring gender equality. The struggle to advance women’s rights is thus closely connected to the promotion of liberal democracy.

Note on source: Author’s figure based on Asian Barometer Data.