Aung San Suu Kyi - photo Reuters/Jorge Silva
Happy Election Day to all of our friends and supporters!
Today, if you will excuse me, I am going to forego a detailed update of our direct work with girls to say a few words on the initial results of this most exciting election in Myanmar and what it might mean for women and girls.
On November 8, 2015 Myanmar held what is expected to be its most credible election since independence from British colonial rule in 1948. Since the military leaders began to usher in economic and political reforms five years ago, there has been an unsteady, but certain, opening of the political and economic spheres. This election day, 498 seats in national Parliament were up for grabs with the remaining 166 reserved for military appointees as per the 2008 Constitution. An additional 800 plus seats in state and regional parliaments were also being contested.
Though it will take several weeks for all votes to be confirmed and the Union Election Commission to certify the results, it is clear that the opposition party, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy is sweeping all levels of parliament across many geographies. This is truly joyous for so many people across the country who have fought hard and sacrificed deeply to bring about greater democracy and equity.
Though clearly the results of this election are incredibly important, what is also of great interest to foreign governments and investors is that this election is deemed “credible” by international monitoring institutions like the Carter Center. Regardless of the election results, if this election is viewed as fairly free and adequately democratic, foreign investment is likely to flow into the country far beyond the already increasing levels since 2010. Skittish investors may see the pathway into the countries economics as less risky and certainly much better for their corporate images.
So what does all this mean for girls and women? I’d say that we need to re-double our efforts to advance the rights of girls.
Rapid foreign investment brings with it great risksas well as opportunity for those at the margins. There will likely be an increase in big develop projects, including resource extraction, the establishment of ‘special economic zones,’ increased consolidation of small holder agricultural lands, new roads and ports and a proliferation low-skilled manufacturing work.
Girls have unique needs that are not exactly the same as children in general and not always totally inline with those of adult women. When girls are marginalized and displaced they face threats that comprise their bodies, their development, their rights, which can have lifelong impacts.
Some of the risks include:
Increases in egregious child labor practices
As described in earlier reports, girls work, sometimes assisting family members in the fields and in the markets, but also in factories, tea shops, restaurants and the extractive industries. (see https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/girls-leadership-burma-myanmar-rights/updates/?pageNo=1)
With increased and poorly regulated investment, there will be added pressure on the labor market especially for low-skilled workers. Often, particularly in garment and assembly, these are girls and young women, some underage and all poorly protected by labor law. With limited protection girls work long and dangerous hours and often experience sexual harassment. And with terribly low wages girls do not have the chance to climb out of poverty.
Displacement from big projects and environmental degradation as well as continued armed conflict
The past few years have already borne an increase in the creation of Special Economic Zones and the slated mega-developments, which include gas pipelines, a hydroelectric dam and a deepsea port, and many, many mining operations. The lack of effective legal and regulatory frameworks on both land rights and loss due to environmental degradation means that poor households are vulnerable to land rights conflicts leading to internal displacement and the associated child rights violations. Loss of land, especially by smallholders will result in increased income insecurity affecting children’s well-being. Girls often suffer most directly from such shifts as parents seek work further away from home and someone needs to take care of the house, the little ones and the elderly.
Increased migration and trafficking
For both the stated reasons above, there will be increased pressure to migrate. Though risky migration and trafficking has largely been associated with cross-border migration in recent years, domestic migration will increase for girls as they seek opportunities to support themselves and their families in the shadow of displacement and new pressures for a cash income. Domestic migration for girls puts them at risk of various forms of exploitation and abuse. Girls who come from ethnic areas and very rural communities may be particularly vulnerable.
With the risks however, do come opportunities. In order for girls to benefit from these opportunities, we must make a concerted effort to push social investments their way.
Opportunities for education
New interest in the country and a demand for different types of workers may drive more open and plural education programs. A system with more opportunities for creative learning and possibly higher-level vocations like digital media and even data entry work could lift the status and income of girls and young women. And, to be incredibly practical, direct improvements in the education system will improve working conditions for teachers, many of whom are women and being a teacher is often a girls’ aspiration. But, they must be actively included.
Better health systems
It is widely assumed that with a more democratically elected government, there will certainly be increased spending on both education and health. So, let’s say there are increasing health expenditures. Great. The people of Myanmar need it. What are the specific needs of girls? Do they have access to sensitive care and reproductive health services? To date, they do not. And, as the health field opens, we need to be actively asking for policy and spending which will bring direct health benefits to the 9 million adolescent girls in the country. Their health is particularly critical to the economic and political future of the country as both mothers and workers.
Opportunities to impact policy
Hopefully with a newly-elected government we will see drafting of new, and improved, legislature and national and state policy. NLD Parliamentarians are expected to be more accessible and willing to include civil society in policy related negotiations. Girls cannot be left out. If we can bring girls’ best interest to the table, we have the opportunity to form girl-positive legislature and policy in a way that has never been so in the country. This can be in the form of spending packages, plans for the advancement of girls rights, responses to violence against girls, needs for girls in poverty, policies related to child labor, and the list goes on. Social and economic policy will need to consider the rights of girls and there is a new opportunity to influence it.
Investing in girls’ rights and development can lift the living standards for all. In order to truly avoid the very real risks of the next period of Myanmar’s history poses to girls and to take most advantage we need to double-down on girls’ rights. Girl Determined puts girls at the forefront of change and we just love to have you along with us.
Thanks for your support and let’s lead the charge in next phase of democratization in Myanmar.
Sincerely full of hope,