Advocates convene to promote women’s right to a nationality in Myanmar

According to Census data, almost a third of the population of Myanmar does not have an identity document – more than half (54 per cent) of those are women. The reasons for this include gender inequalities, gender-based discrimination, deeply rooted male preference, and a lack of legal and policy frameworks that fully comply with human rights standards.

Date: Thursday, February 14, 2019

Author: Jemma Galvin

Yangon, Myanmar — To strengthen joint action on nationality rights, UN Women and UNHCR convened key women’s civil society organizations (CSOs), gender equality networks and women’s empowerment advocates from across Myanmar, representing diverse states, ethnicities, religions, transgendered persons, sex workers, networks of women living with HIV and women with disabilities, philanthropists, faith-based leaders and celebrities.

Participants came from all over the country to discuss the right to a nationality in Myanmar. Photo: UNHCR
Participants came from all over the country to discuss the right to a nationality in Myanmar. Photo: UNHCR

Held in Yangon on September 2018, the workshop presented findings from the study “A Gender Analysis on the Right to a Nationality in Myanmar”, which was conducted by UNHCR and UN Women in 2017 in partnership with the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), local CSO The Seagull, the Statelessness Network Asia Pacific (SNAP) and the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI). Carried out in Mawlamyine, Mandalay and Yangon, the study highlighted the gender barriers women in Myanmar face in particular in acquiring citizenship documents and conferring citizenship on their children.

“When a child is born a refugee, or in instances where the father is unknown, including children born of rape, as well as children born to a non-national father, or out of an unauthorized marriage, such as an interfaith marriage, mothers face immense challenges in conferring citizenship upon their children,” explains Nikola Errington, Protection Officer, UNHCR Myanmar.

Smriti Aryal, UN Women Myanmar’s Head of Office (a.i.), gives welcoming remarks at the event. Photo: UNHCR
Smriti Aryal, UN Women Myanmar’s Head of Office (a.i.), gives welcoming remarks at the event. Photo: UNHCR

In her welcoming remarks, UN Women Myanmar’s Head of Office (a.i.), Smriti Aryal, highlighted that legal recognition and identity for all groups is key to an inclusive democratic process. She emphasized the need for targeted joint action that supports the citizenship rights of all women and collaboration with the Government to ensure that reform processes underway on identity rights are compliant with international norms and Myanmar’s commitments.

“As a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination on All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Myanmar has committed to upholding international obligations relevant to gender equality, the right to a nationality, the right to birth registration and equal nationality rights between all people,” Ms. Aryal said. “The recognition of and access to legal identity rights, including access to civil documents and citizenship, is critical to enjoying all other rights.”

Such “other” rights include those concerned with property and land tenure, education, employment, migration, health services, housing and protection. As such, this report and event – the first of their kind – are vital to the advancement of gender equality and women’s empowerment in Myanmar.

Attendees shared stories of their own experiences of gender and citizenship issues in Myanmar. Photo: UNHCR
Attendees shared stories of their own experiences of gender and citizenship issues in Myanmar. Photo: UNHCR

Myanmar is home to one of the largest populations of stateless persons in the world, and inter-generational discrimination in accessing basic services and protection due to their lack of official identity documents is a huge problem affecting many. While efforts to address this issue are ongoing, a vast number of women in Myanmar – particularly those belonging to minority groups – still face significant difficulties in proving their citizenship status – and therefore exercising their human rights. Studies have shown that people with diverse gender identity and sexual orientation as well as those with disabilities face additional difficulties due to the lack of legal recognition, the criminalization of same-sex relationships, laws that do not recognize same-sex marriage, and other factors.

Ms. Aryal noted that while all women in Myanmar are affected, not all are equally impacted. Some women – such as the stateless and internally displaced, ethnic and religious minorities, female-headed households, rural women, sex workers, lesbian couples, transgender and queer persons – face additional barriers and discrimination in acquiring and transferring citizenship, including when approaching authorities. Transgender individuals, for example, lack legal recognition in Myanmar, and are often forced to identify themselves by their biological sex, sometimes even being asked to remove their clothing at immigration offices and facing humiliating treatment.

Barriers to organizing

Pansy Tun Thein, a Technical Adviser for the Gender Equality Network, highlighted the fact that advocating for equal citizenship rights in Myanmar is a complex and sensitive issue in the context of protracted armed conflict, particularly for women CSOs representing different ethnic groups. It had been difficult for them to convene and jointly mobilize on the topic, until this workshop.

Members of the UN Women Myanmar team with women's rights activist Ketu Mala (centre, right) and singer-songwriter Ah Moon (third from right). Photo: UNHCR
Members of the UN Women Myanmar team with women's rights activist Ketu Mala (centre, right) and singer-songwriter Ah Moon (third from right). Photo: UNHCR

Building on this idea, Myat Thiri Aung, the Information, Counselling and Legal Assistance Coordinator (Research and Capacity-Building) with the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) noted that in conflict-affected areas women, internally displaced women are often restricted from accessing authorities due to the high number of checkpoints, and family and community members not allowing their movement due to either real or perceived threats of violence. Because of social stigma and gender stereotypes, these women also often face harassment from their communities if they move about freely without being accompanied by a man.

Key agreed priority actions for women CSOs, networks and groups:

  • Conduct advocacy and awareness raising campaign at national, state, local and community levels targeting government, authorities, powerholders as well as women and wider communities. Focus collective advocacy and campaigning in the run up to upcoming general elections to promote more positive and inclusive laws and policies in favour of equal citizenship rights as a tool for winning votes.
  • Provide legal protection and legal services to women including by linking/referring to other NGO service providers and immigration offices.
  • Conduct mapping of undocumented women and refer to relevant authorities for targeted support.
  • Implement overall programme initiatives on women’s empowerment and leadership as well as gender social norms changes.
  • Provide targeted programme interventions for women IDPs, ethnic minority women, transgender/lesbian and queer women, sex workers, female headed households, widows, single women, older women, women with disabilities, women migrant workers, sex workers, trafficking survivors, gender-based violence survivors, women in inter-faith marriages, etc.
  • Conduct further research on gender and citizenship issues focusing on other parts of the country and particular population groups that face discrimination and marginalisation, including transgender women and women with disabilities.

Looking more broadly at Southeast Asia and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Jelvas Musau, Senior Regional Statelessness Officer at UNHCR, said: “Myanmar must learn from successful examples and efforts in Indonesia and Malaysia that promote gender equality and citizenship rights by mobilizing the women’s movement for joint advocacy with the government and parliament to reform national laws,” he said. “The SDGs cannot be achieved if we have gender inequality and stateless or undocumented people.”

The workshop fostered a brainstorming session on how to take the report’s recommendations forward. Women’s groups, networks and CSO agreed to conduct an advocacy and awareness-raising campaign at national, state, local and community levels targeting government, authorities, decision-makers as well as women and wider communities. There was consensus on the need to provide legal protection and legal services to women including referrals to other NGO service-providers and immigration offices, and map undocumented women. They discussed the need for programme interventions targeting the most vulnerable groups of women, as well as the need for further research on gender and citizenship issues focusing on marginalized groups, including transgendered women and women with disabilities.

Daw Swe Swe Khaing, Head of the Women’s Department at the Confederation of Trade Unions of Myanmar. Photo: UNHCR
Daw Swe Swe Khaing, Head of the Women’s Department at the Confederation of Trade Unions of Myanmar. Photo: UNHCR

Despite positive steps being taken by the Government of Myanmar to promote gender equality and women’s rights, including the adoption of the National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women 2013-2022, is was clear during the workshop that much work still needs to be done.

Through events like this and other work, UN Women Myanmar will continue to work with UNHCR, women’s CSOs and other partners to promote gender equality and citizenship rights in Myanmar.