Kassandra Neranjan and Sakshi Shetty consider the specific vulnerabilities women face in Myanmar in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Women are playing an indispensable role in the global response against the coronavirus pandemic. Acting as healthcare workers, scientists, researchers, social mobilizers, political leaders and caregivers, women are at the forefront of this fight. However, while everyone is affected by COVID-19, this pandemic amplifies pre-existing gender inequalities and makes women particularly vulnerable, a reality that policy-makers have yet to take into account.
In Myanmar, women face various obstacles as internally displaced peoples, garment workers, unpaid labourers, and victims of overarching conflict. Not only has COVID-19 affected these populations’ capacities to support themselves, the impact in these sectors serve to elucidate existing gender inequalities women face in Myanmar. This article was written as part of an International Development Research Centre (IDRC)-funded project–a collaboration between the University of Toronto and the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security–on gender and decentralization in Myanmar. Drawing on some of the data collected in Myanmar from 2018 to 2019, this text will reflect on women’s vulnerabilities and resilience in the face of a global pandemic.
Myanmar’s healthcare system has improved drastically since transitioning to semi-civilian rule in 2011, but remains underfunded and understaffed. The COVID-19 crisis is thus taking place amidst an already overstretched healthcare system that faces important challenges, such as gaps in access between rural and urban communities; the lowest number of intensive care beds per capita among lower and lower-middle-income countries of the region (except Bangladesh); and fewer than 200 ventilators.
So far, the government of Myanmar’s response has been haphazard, at best. The country, most likely, has a higher number of COVID-19 cases than it purports. However, the actual number is difficult to assess given limited testing capacity and heavily regulated media. The government spokesperson Zaw Htay first responded to the pandemic by stating that “lifestyle and diet measures” protected Myanmar citizens from the coronavirus infection, reporting its first case only at the end of March. Although the government has distanced itself from these initial remarks, its response continues to be inadequate.
Official numbers suggest that Yangon is the epicentre of the pandemic in Myanmar, but rural areas and underserved communities such as Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) are facing aid blockages and essential item shortages, creating a further disparity in intervention, and a potentially much higher number of COVID-19 cases. The state continues to place severe restrictions on information dissemination including blocking independent media sites, arresting journalists, and shutting down internet in impoverished states in the country. This only creates further fear and concern around the pandemic. Ultimately, Myanmar’s response has not been coordinated and may not be serving all those actually affected by the virus. In this context, women are particularly vulnerable.
COVID-19 may hit IDPs the hardest, of which a majority are women. This is a consequence of mostly men participating in civil conflict and thus being subject to violence, arbitrary arrest, and detention. In camps where coronavirus can easily spread, women are thus incredibly susceptible. As a result of several conflicts, Myanmar is home to over 241,000 displaced people in camps and other precarious living circumstances. Critically, 77 percent of IDPs are women and children, making them disproportionately affected by COVID-19.On a daily basis, these women face risks of gender-based violence, human trafficking, sexual slavery, discrimination, and harassment.
During a pandemic, further vulnerabilities arise. With inadequate access to essential needs such as water, food, and sanitation, IDPs are faced with a catch-22: go out to earn a living and risk contracting COVID-19, or remain indoors and face food and water shortages. In the Jan Mai Kawng IDP camp in Kachin state, over 200 of the 2000 camp inhabitants choose the former option, risking their lives to support their families every day.
The women remaining in camps often have underlying health conditions. In camps, they remain vulnerable to contracting the illness as camps are overcrowded and act as “tinderboxes” for the coronavirus. This overcrowding results in an inability to socially distance in adjoining huts housing eight to 10 people at once, creating opportunities of exposure to the coronavirus. These camps already face severe pre-existing restrictions of humanitarian aid as a component of government strategy to control IDP populations. Furthermore, bureaucracy hampers IDPs’ ability to seek healthcare in camps, which sometimes requires several referrals to see a single healthcare practitioner.
Camps facilitate easy transmission of COVID-19, the government has reduced humanitarian assistance to these regions, and the attempt to seek healthcare is a slow and burdensome task for IDPs. It is thus evident that IDP camps put a large population at risk of health complications from COVID-19. For women who already face the aforementioned security risks when leaving their homes, this exacerbates their already difficult task of survival. As well, considering that women and girls are largely responsible for care work and taking care of children and the elderly, their vulnerabilities pose health risks for IDP populations at large.
Historical data about other viruses such as H1N1 and other forms of influenza in the camps were not readily available, but a study conducted in 2009 on the Myanmar-Thailand border of overcrowded refugee camps very similar to the aforementioned IDP camps, found that influenza virus infections were incredibly common. With this in mind, the risks for IDPs and IDP women are alarming.
Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused an employment crisis, with many individuals around the world facing loss of jobs. Myanmar is facing similar circumstances with the garment industry taking the hardest hit. The garment industry is a significant contributor to Myanmar’s national economic growth, with an overall export value of $2.7 billion. Furthermore, over 1.1 million workers are currently employed in factories across Myanmar.
Women make up the bulk of the workforce in these garment factories. For the women formally employed in the factories, garment work can provide a source of income, work under dignified conditions, and some limited job security. The COVID-19 pandemic has not only stripped these workers of their security and income, but has also highlighted that they have little economic and financial support in a growing industry. Furthermore, a separate class of garment workers who rely on informal contracts for work have not only lost their jobs due to COVID but also are ineligible for any government financial assistance packages.
Figures indicate that more than 150 major factories have shut down, and upwards of 60,000 factory workers across the country have lost their jobs since the start of the pandemic. This figure is likely an underestimate, as much of the industry relies on informal work or “flexible contracts”.
While the garment business grapples with coronavirus, there have also been reports of well-known brands’ factories using this pandemic to ramp up union busts. For instance, a major factory outside of Yangon dismissed 1274 workers in late March. In an interview with one of the factories’ operators, it was revealed that 520 of 571 workers who had been dismissed in one department belonged to the factory’s union. About 700 workers that did not belong to the union kept their jobs.
Women are disproportionately impacted in these situations. Losing their main source of income has hindered their ability to buy food and gain access to healthcare. The Myanmar government has promised to cover 40% of the salaries of workers whose factories were closed on government orders until they pass inspections for preventing the spread of the coronavirus. However, there have been reports of workers receiving no aid whatsoever since January. Addressing economic and social risks related to gendered inequalities in the context of COVID-19 should be a priority, in particular for women in the informal economy or those earning low incomes. While it is complex task to navigate through the pandemic, it is crucial that the Myanmar government has extensive social protection measures in place to support the most vulnerable in the country.
Stay-at-home orders, in Myanmar as elsewhere, are adding an extra burden on women. With 224 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Myanmar as of May 31st, the government has imposed public health measures restricting mobility to varying degrees across rural and urban areas. Tasks such as household chores, watching children, and caring for the elderly or sick are taking up more of people’s time. Although both women and men are facing some of these burdens, women are substantially more likely to perform many of the unpaid care and domestic tasks. In a recent survey conducted by UN Women, cleaning, cooking and serving meals appear to almost exclusively be women’s responsibilities in all countries surveyed, including Myanmar. Working mothers are finding themselves stretched thinner than usual in trying to juggle home-based work, homeschooling, childcare, and housework.
Restrictions on mobility have also put women in precarious positions, with a heightened risk of intimate partner violence. With the situation of domestic violence in Myanmar already described as a “silent emergency” for women where neither law nor social policy provide much support, the UN has recently declared domestic violence against women as a “shadow pandemic” in the wake of COVID-19 social distancing. Domestic violence rates are likely to continue increasing as security, health, and money worries heighten tensions and strains in confined living conditions.
The direct consequence of COVID-19 on women is apparent, but the underlying context of conflict creates additional concerns. Myanmar has a history of violence between the state military and insurgent minority groups. As COVID-19 dominates the news cycle and global attention, the Myanmar military has increased attacks on minority groups in Karen, Kachin, Shan, and Rakhine States. With society’s gaze turned towards a pandemic, 32 civilians were killed in clashes between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army in the first half of April. These were mostly women and children who were killed. There may be higher numbers of casualties in May, and in other ethnic state that are underreported. This conduct against civilians has been alleged to amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is imperative that during a global pandemic, states act to support their inhabitants, not hurt them. Likewise, to enforce this ideal, it is critical that human rights institutions such as the United Nations and other countries denounce this violence to apply normative pressure in preventing further harm to marginalized communities. Not only is this necessary for international order, but for the vulnerable women and children who are victims of these assaults on their bodies and dignity.
As much as women are susceptible to COVID-19 and face various gendered vulnerabilities, they are equally agents of change and resilience. Adapting to such precarious circumstances requires skill, tact, and organization. This is evident in the work of several women-led initiatives in Myanmar. For example, the Gender Equality Network in Myanmar has released several briefs addressing gender advocacy and domestic violence resources for women in the context of COVID-19. These have specifically been released in several minority languages including Poe Karen, Sakaw Karen, Kachin, and others, to include communities that face barriers to receiving information.
The Karen Women’s Organization (KWO) has also been responding to the conflict. KWO staff have organized in sewing thousands of masks, purchasing and packing hygiene items and creating emergency food packs, which they provide through socially distanced home visits in Karen state. Larger organizations continue to support women on the ground as well. UN Women continues to provide some communities with access to internet opportunities to digitally market their products so as to avoid social interactions and prevent the spread of coronavirus. In the face of adversity, women in Myanmar continue to produce in the economy, share knowledge in their networks, and promote the health of those in their communities.
In considering the vulnerabilities and resilience of women, it is pertinent for governments to create solutions that consider nuances of gender at the conception of their response strategies, and the intersectional experiences these women face as displaced peoples, survivors of violence, and more. Ostensibly the pandemic affects health alone, but women exist in complex and deep-rooted relationships which have larger ramifications for society—as labourers, service providers, and more. Ignoring these considerations of gender dismisses societal needs as a whole, and government responsibility for all its citizens. The steps required to move forward are unambiguous. Following the lead of grassroots women’s organizations, the strategies proposed by individual women on the ground, and investing in gender-sensitive and culturally appropriate responses are critical to the health and prosperity of women in Myanmar.
Kassandra Neranjan is a member of the University of Toronto-IDRC research team and specializes on women security, intersectionality and gender justice. She is currently a BCL/JD candidate at McGill University. Kassandra graduated from the University of Toronto with an Honours BA in International Relations and Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies. There, she completed original research assessing gender mainstreaming in aid provision for Rohingya women and girls in Bangladesh refugee camps. Kassandra also serves as a gender justice advocate, addressing topics of feminist policy-making in her local community, nationally, and internationally.
Sakshi Shetty is a member of the research team of the University of Toronto-IDRC project and specializes on women and public health. She is a recent graduate from the University of Toronto where she received an Honors BSc in Health & Disease, and Immunology. She is interested in global health, specifically in exploring the role of the social determinants on health and well-being. Through her project, Women On The Move, Sakshi assessed the extent of gender mainstreaming in aid provision for Rohingya women and girls in the refugee camps. She has also worked with not-for-profit organizations around the world to research and develop impact evaluation tools.