Political Change, Women’s Rights, and Public Opinion on Gender Equality in Myanmar

Abstract

Myanmar’s introduction of competitive elections after decades of military rule raised expectations for progress in economic and social development, including in the area of women’s rights. In this paper, we draw on data from two national surveys, interviews, and existing qualitative studies to explore public opinion on women’s rights and gender equality. Do Burmese people support gender equality? How are their views on gender related to other aspects of political culture, such as traditional values and views toward authoritarianism and democracy? Our objective is to gain better understanding of the opportunities and obstacles to egalitarian social change and democratic consolidation. Our analysis of survey data reveals that attitudes toward gender roles are conservative, traditional and anti-democratic beliefs are widespread, and these views are strongly associated. Our findings imply that tendencies in public opinion provide a resource for Burmese nationalist groups and politicians and an obstacle to activists seeking greater alignment with global norms on gender equality.

Résumé

L'introduction d’un système d’élections compétitives au Myanmar, après des décennies de régime militaire, a suscité des attentes de progrès en matière de développement économique et sociale, y compris des droits des femmes. Dans cette étude, nous utilisons des données obtenues en base à deux enquêtes nationales, du travail sur le terrain, et des études qualitatives préexistants, afin d’explorer l’opinion publique au regard des droits des femmes et la parité entre les sexes. Est-ce que les Birmans soutiennent-ils la parité entre les sexes ? Comment se relationnent leurs opinions sur les genres à d’autres aspects de culture politique, tels que les valeurs traditionnelles, et leurs vues au respect de l’autoritarisme et la démocratie ? Notre objectif c’est de mieux comprendre les opportunités et les obstacles à un changement sociale égalitaire et à la consolidation démocratique. L’analyse des données des enquêtes révèle que les attitudes envers les rôles des sexes sont conservatives ; que des convictions traditionnelles et anti-démocratiques sont répandues ; et que l’association entre ces deux avis est forte. Nos résultats impliquent que les tendances d’opinion publique sont une ressource pour les groupes et politiciens nationalistes Birmanes, mais un obstacle aux activistes qui cherchent un plus fort alignement avec les normes globales de partité des sexes.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Even before these two surveys, the International Republican Institute (IRI) released a survey about public opinion on political and economic topics. We do not analyze this survey as it included few questions on women and gender.

  2. 2.

    See the presentation “Survey of Burma Public Opinion”, accessed at www.iri.org.

  3. 3.

    Nay Pyi Taw was not included since the township authorities did not permit the survey (Asia Foundation 2014, p. 116). The survey had a response rate of 89.6% (Asia Foundation 2014, p. 120).

  4. 4.

    The control variables include respondents’ age (numerical 18–70), whether or not they live in an urban area (dummy variable based on survey question A6), gender identity, marital and work status, education level (a 1–9 ordinal scale based on survey question D5), and the income level of their family (an ordinal scale 1–10 based on survey question D9). The models also include fixed effects.

  5. 5.

    Interview, Yangon, June 2016.

  6. 6.

    Notes written by Ryan Roco on June 15, 2016.

  7. 7.

    The belief that women should isolate themselves during their menstrual cycles is widespread and not unique to Buddhism. One Christian woman interviewed in Yangon reported that she was forbidden from participating in parties and celebrations of her church group when she was menstruating (Interview, Yangon, June 2016).

  8. 8.

    Personal correspondence about observations by Ko Moe Htun, November 22, 2016.

  9. 9.

    Interview in Yangon, June 2016.

  10. 10.

    Their figure for Myanmar differs slightly from ours, most likely because they do not exclude people who did not answer the question.

  11. 11.

    This set of statements also includes a question about preference for having a boy child, which we exclude since we are considering this question to be an indicator of gender attitudes. The technical report about the survey states that this question is the least correlated with the rest, and that the traditionalism scale has a higher Cronbach’s α when it is excluded.

  12. 12.

    We also coded the score in an alternative way, assigning respondents a 4 if they say they “strongly agree”, a 3 if they say “somewhat agree”, a 2 for “somewhat disagree”, and 1 for “strongly disagree.” Averaging over the 13 statements we get an average of 3.3 on this 1–4 scale.

  13. 13.

    Here we exclude a statement about women in politics, which we consider separately, as well as the statement “People with little or no education should have as much say in politics as highly-educated people”, because it is framed the opposite of the other questions.

  14. 14.

    The alternative coding of assigning a numerical value to different responses results in an average value of 2 (on a scale running from 1 to 4). The traditional and authoritarian value scales are correlated at ϱ = 0.4.

  15. 15.

    Traditionalism and conservatism are not associated with age, as shown in Fig. 6 in the Online Appendix.

  16. 16.

    The variance inflation index is only 1.2, suggesting that it is not problematic to include both in the same model.

  17. 17.

    The government won power in the 2010 elections, which were boycotted by the National League for Democracy (NLD), the country’s largest party, and widely regarded as failing to adhere to international standards of electoral integrity.

  18. 18.

    On opposition to the proposal, see, e.g., Mike Ives, “As Myanmar Democratizes, Women’s Rights Lag Behind,” The New York Times, May 16, 2017.

  19. 19.

    Interview, Yangon, June 2016 (translated from the Burmese).

  20. 20.

    During the 1970s and 1980s, women made up less than 3% of parliament, and around the same share won seats in the 1990 elections. Military rule in the 1990s and 2000s meant few women in power, as women historically made up only some 1% of military personnel (Harriden 2012).

  21. 21.

    See, e.g., Megan Specia and Paul Mozur, “A War of Words Puts Facebook at the Center of Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis,” The New York Times, October 27, 2017; Hannah Beech and Saw Nang, “In Myanmar, a Facebook Blackout Brings More Anger Than a Genocide Charge,” The New York Times, August 31, 2018; Paul Mozur, “A Genocide Incited on Facebook, With Posts From Myanmar’s Military,” The New York Times, October 15, 2018.

  22. 22.

    Their surveys conducted in 2014 found that 60% of respondents nationwide support such laws; surveys in Yangon and Mandalay in 2017 found support from 75% of respondents (David and Holliday 2018, pp. 122–123).

  23. 23.

    See www.pewforum.org/fact-sheet/changing-attitudes-on-gay-marriage.

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Acknowledgements

The research was conducted with support from the Andrew Carnegie Corporation and the Norwegian Research Council (Project Number 250753). We are grateful to Ryan Roco for sharing data with us from his fieldwork in Myanmar. We thank Kim Ninh of the Asia Foundation for making their survey data available to us and we appreciate the Asian Barometer’s release of their 4th wave survey data on Myanmar. The paper benefitted from comments by Elin Bjarnegård and participants in the workshop on Development Challenges in Myanmar at Uppsala University.

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Htun, M., Jensenius, F.R. Political Change, Women’s Rights, and Public Opinion on Gender Equality in Myanmar. Eur J Dev Res 32, 457–481 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41287-020-00266-z

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Keywords

  • Myanmar
  • Women’s rights
  • Public opinion
  • Political culture
  • Gender equality
  • Nationalism