Lack of sex education for women perpetuates gender inequality in Myanmar but activists addressing such issues are falling foul of Buddhist extremists
A woman showering outside her shack in Yangon. Women in Myanmar are struggling to gain control of their lives. Photograph: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images
In Myanmar there are no vaginas. Linguistically, at least, that part of the female body does not exist in Burmese – a lexical omission that highlights the intense cultural taboos facing women’s rights activists as they battle against the country’s woeful maternal health record and entrenched gender prejudices.
Rights and health organisations are beginning to address inequality issues in the long-isolated country, but the advent of Buddhist extremism threatens to derail the women’s movement in Myanmar just as it starts to gain more powers.
When the word “vagina” recently appeared in an English language edition of a Myanmar newspaper it sparked a scandal. Many readers simply could not accept it was a polite and medically recognised term.
The young female journalist involved received a barrage of criticism, including messages telling her that her “reputation as a woman was ruined forever” because she had been associated with it.
A number of Myanmar’s ethnic minority languages do have words that directly translate as “vagina”, and there are few, if any, taboos about using them. However, for the majority of people who use the country’s official language, Burmese, the body part is inherently shameful and it is difficult for them to believe any word applying to it – even in another language – could be anything other than vulgar.
The only “polite” term available for women who want or need to refer to that part of their anatomy translates as “woman’s body” – hardly precise.
“It is very difficult for women to express anything to do with this in public. It is considered dirty and shameful. It’s a big barrier for them when they need to talk about anything that is wrong,” explains Zin Min Thu, a researcher on gender and sexuality in Myanmar.
Zin Min Thu adds that women feel it particularly important to hide anything to do with menstrual blood. While this taboo is hardly confined to Myanmar, it manifests itself in a distinct way there.
Garments that have come into close contact with a woman’s lower half, such as the traditional htamein (a wraparound skirt worn by most women in Myanmar) or underpants, are considered unclean, even after they have been washed. They are also believed to have the ability to rob men of their hpoun – a concept that could roughly be translated as “masculine power”.
As such, it is taught that these items of clothing should never be hung in a place where men will have to walk under them. It is also unacceptable to wash men’s clothes in the same bowl or machine as women’s garments, for fear of contamination or loss of power.
“It’s not right that people should tell us we’re dirty just because we menstruate. It is discrimination,” says 19-year-old Thu Thu, an activist from Shan state.
A growing number of women’s organisations are tackling such issues head on by running workshops on sexual and reproductive health and women’s rights.
Among the most well established of these is the Akhaya Women’s Association. According to its founder, Daw Htar Htar, a lack of sex education for women is a key factor in continued gender inequality in Myanmar.
Female activists are threatened not only with death, but also humiliated with dirty and nasty words and dangerous speech
“The traditional view in Myanmar is that women’s genitals are dirty, which leads to degrading views about women in general. When society degrades women no one respects them. Sex education is important in teaching women to value themselves,” Daw Htar Htar explained in a recent interview with local media.
The group provides weekly sexual health education classes to women of different ages and backgrounds. Activities include asking women to draw naked bodies to encourage discussion – an exercise that, say class leaders, generally starts with embarrassment before leading to more open and frank conversations.
“For many women, this is the first time they have been able to talk about their bodies freely without fear of judgment,” said Lucy Stevens, a social researcher at Akhaya Women. “This experience helps women develop a positive relationship with their body, build self-confidence and recognise their right to exercise ownership over it, as well as freedom from discrimination in the home and in public.”
While such programmes have helped at least some women address key sexual health issues, women’s rights activism in general has suffered a serious blow in recent months.
The growth in power and influence of a hardline Buddhist nationalism, fronted by extremist monks, has led to the introduction of four new laws. Although billed as protecting race and religion, the legislation has been widely condemned internationally as being targeted at Muslim communities and breaching women’s rights.
Among the powers conferred by the new laws are “population control” measures – allowing for legal intervention in how long women must wait between having children – and legislation to restrict interfaith marriage.
At a time when Myanmar’s government is seeking international recognition for its reforms, women’s activists say that this is a major step backwards and the first time these inherent breaches of women’s basic rights have been enshrined in law.
Activists campaigning against the legislation have faced intimidation, public humiliation and even death threats.
While the extremists leading the monk movement, known as Ma Ba Tha, do not represent all monks in Myanmar, their power and influence is extensive. The group has widespread support and its powers could shape the political and social face of Myanmar in coming years. The country holds its first open general election on 8 November.
Those female activists who have spoken out against the monk-backed laws have been cast as enemies of Buddhism and of Myanmar.
One prominent women’s rights campaigner who has challenged the laws, but asked not to be named for fear of reprisals said: “Personally, as I am outspoken about these four laws, I am targeted by Ma Ba Tha and ultra nationalists who issue statements declaring we are national traitors.”
She said she and other women’s rights activists had discovered their names, photos and phone numbers had been put on posters and displayed at monasteries associated with Ma Ba Tha.
“Women activists including me are threatened not only with death threats, but also humiliated with dirty and nasty words and dangerous speech.”
She added: “What I highlight to the international community and media is to follow and watch closely women campaigners who may be threatened and at risk during [the election] campaign period.”