RANGOON — Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has criticized an education policy in Burma that makes it more difficult for women to study certain subjects at universities than their male counterparts, saying women have a valuable role to play in the transition toward democracy but have been denied equal opportunities.
“We wanted a culture of democracy, we are trying to build a culture of democracy, and that starts with equality,” she said Friday, speaking to an audience of more than 600 in Rangoon at the opening of Burma’s first international women’s forum. “In politics, our women have suffered as greatly as the men during the struggle for democracy over the last nearly three decades. But equally suffering does not always mean that we benefit equally.”
She said women in Burma were capable of serving as leaders in the transition toward a more democratic system.
“It’s not for the lack of qualification but because of lack of equal opportunity that we do not have enough women in positions of influence and decision-making,” she told reporters later in the day.
Suu Kyi was elected last year to Burma’s Parliament, where 95 percent of seats are held by male lawmakers. She has expressed ambitions to become the country’s next president in 2015.
She said Burmese women were well qualified, often comprising the majority of top students in schools. “But there’s a discrimination against them,” she added. “In certain faculties, girls are required to get more marks than boys in order to enter.”
Women applicants are required to earn significantly higher marks than men if they seek to study six subjects at universities, including medicine and law, activists say. The policy was put in place because women currently outnumber men in these faculties.
Men are also required to earn higher marks than women to study two subjects in which they outnumber women, but women’s rights activists say the score differential is less significant.
Suu Kyi said this issue was being discussed by a parliamentary committee which she chairs that is drafting a law to reform higher education.
At the Women’s Forum Myanmar, a two-day event organized in part by the French Embassy and supported by the Burma government, Suu Kyi also called on women to encourage a new mindset of gender equality at home. “I’ve often referred to this old Burmese saying, which I find rather objectionable, quite frankly, that you must treat your son like a lord and your husband like a god. … It doesn’t do them any good to be treated that way,” she said at the opening ceremony. “We’ve got to start changing these attitudes.”
She added later, “It’s women who can open up their family. A woman who is incapable of opening her family will be incapable of making a meaningful role in an opening society.”
Many women in Burma were imprisoned for their political activism under Burma’s former military regime, which ceded power to a quasi-civilian government in 2011. Suu Kyi said women also played a vital role by supporting husbands who were jailed as political prisoners, often making arduous journeys across the country to bring them food and medicine in overcrowded, squalid prisons. “These are the unknown soldiers of our revolution,” she said.
Su Su Lwin, a lawmaker who works on education policy for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party, confirmed that the issue of discrimination had been discussed by lawmakers drafting the higher education bill.
“But I would say we need to discuss more, because at the moment we have needed to focus more on the autonomy of universities,” she told The Irrawaddy at the forum, referring to efforts to allow universities to break away from state control. “But gender definitely is an issue, and there should be equity of access to higher education.”
“What is more important,” she added, “is that after a person acquires some education, there needs to be more equity in the job search process. The discrimination is not written in black and white, but it’s the culture that discriminates.”
In some cases, so does the Constitution, says Ma Htar Htar, a women’s rights activist who leads the Akhaya women’s network in Rangoon.
“The Constitution says a president must have military experience,” she told The Irrawaddy. “But in reality, in the past women were not allowed in military schools. There is no woman right now with military experience.”
In the past Burmese women were only allowed to serve as army nurses. Earlier this year the Ministry of Defense invited women to join the armed forces in commissioned posts, saying successful candidates could start as second lieutenants.
But Ma Htar Htar said the training program was also discriminatory.
“Boys who finish 10th standard [in high school] can join the training program, but women can only enter after graduating university,” she said. “And while boys can leave the program to become captains, women only become second lieutenants.”
Throughout history, women in Burma have valued a degree of independence and participation in the public sphere not seen in some other countries in the region. In 1958, Mya Sein, a lecturer in history at Rangoon University and then-president of Burma’s National Council of Women, said her research had found “vestiges of a matriarchal system which must have flourished here at one time.”
“The inheritance of certain oil wells, for instance, belonged exclusively to women; in some cases the inheritance to the headmanship of a village was through the female line,” she wrote for The Atlantic magazine. “During the days of the Burmese kings, women were frequently appointed to high office and became leaders of a village, chieftainess, and even ruled as queen. …To this day we have no family surnames in Burma and a woman keeps her own name after marriage.”
But statistics paint a less rosy picture. In a Gender Inequality Index published by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) this year, Burma ranked 80th on a list of 186 countries, while neighboring India ranked 132, Thailand ranked 66 and China ranked 35. The index was based on women’s achievements in reproductive health, empowerment and the labor market.
In Burma, 75 percent of women aged 15 and older were engaged in the labor market, either working or actively looking for work, compared with 82 percent of men, according to the index report. About the same percentage of women and men had completed at least secondary education, at 18 percent and 17 percent respectively.
But only about 5 percent of seats in Parliament are held by women, among the lowest scores in the index. For maternal mortality, Burma was found to have 200 deaths per 100,000 live births, compared with 21 deaths in the United States, 48 in Thailand and 200 in India.