by Alexandra Preperier
60 years of military rule in Myanmar that only started to move towards a civilian regime in 2011 has led to a range of difficulties for women’s rights. The Burmese legal framework on gender equality is extremely weak, and while many new acts of legislation have been passed since 2011, comprehensive laws on gender-based sexual violence still need to be approved. For example, the national legal framework lacks definitions of gender-based discrimination as well as corresponding penalties, which makes it hard to obtain gender equality. Most importantly, efforts towards criminalizing sexual abuse at the national level have been made, but violence such as rape is still not universally condemned at the local level, explains Eleonora Gatti, Consultant at the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Myanmar and iWomen App Coordinator. Barriers to working opportunities are also high and only half of women are part of the workforce. The outlook for gender equality in Myanmar is rather grim. Kindly accepting an interview with The Paris Globalist, Eleonora Gatti tells us about a new UNDP initiative promoting women’s empowerment in Myanmar.
To Burmese women who may have previously faced gender discrimination by themselves, UNDP launched an innovative project in March 2016 in the form of an app that inspires women. The key highlight of the iWomen app (where “i“ stands for inspiration) is that it presents users with real life stories shared by a wide range of women, varying from rural Burmese housewives to international female Nobel-prize winners. These women share personal stories as well as difficulties they faced in their lives and how they overcame them. The app therefore seeks to link women together, as they learn from the experiences of women that live in similar rural areas of Myanmar, as well as all around the world. A commenting system is also available, and allows users to express their opinion about the stories and discuss them with other users. iWomen therefore has the potential to inspire rural women with a new range of possibilities they can aspire to reach, such as becoming the head of a business, or maybe a village leader. According to Ms. Gatti, this is important, as women can then really picture themselves holding these different positions; it enables them to believe that they can achieve more.
Sharing international stories also shows Myanmar-based users that gender inequality is a global issue. Ms. Gatti explains that many of the beneficiaries of the app previously believed that the root cause of the gender discrimination they face lies their individual situation: being poor and belonging to an ethnic minority. Instead, the app shows them that these are only further layers of oppression and that women in different parts of the world, belonging to a different ethnicity or having a different faith face similar challenges.
Another key feature of the app is that it helps resolve issues caused by the lack of knowledge, both in terms of legal and business frameworks, of many women living in rural areas. As legal changes have been extremely rapid since the political opening of the country in 2011, iWomen presents users with useful summaries of key legislative texts explained in short and clear terms, that help them to assert their rights. Additionally, users are presented with useful information for business activities, such as the price of key commodities. While women did not always have access to this type of information in the past, the app allows them to sell products on the market, while knowing how much their merchandise is worth. It is complemented by a chat platform where women can be in contact with one another.
This promotion of inspiration, self-belief, knowledge and networking is hoped to combine to increase women’s participation at both the public and private level. In particular, the UNDP project aims to foster local development, where progress on gender equality stagnated during the 60 years of military rule. In this vein, one of the concrete objectives advanced by the UNDP program is to see a greater participation of women in “Village Development Committees” that have traditionally been a male-dominated decision-making group. These committees hold an important de facto power over local developments as they decide, amongst other things, how to invest local budgets. Therefore, a greater presence of women in these spheres would help promote gender equality from the ground up.
Empowering poor women with smartphones – overcoming the oxymoron
What is interesting about this project is the apparent paradox that emerges when thinking about the use of smartphone technology to promote women’s rights in rural areas of a South-east Asian low-income country. Can one really foster social development through a technology that may precisely lack in the areas one wishes to work in?
The smartphone landscape in Myanmar has undergone extremely rapid changes since the end of the authoritarian regime, as it meant a swift opening up of markets, including that of the mobile phone sector. Costs of the SIM cards dropped from US$1,500-2,000 to US$1.50 and low-cost smartphones produced in China led to a massive rise in the number of smartphone owners. According to Ms. Gatti, around 50 to 60% of the population owns mobile phones. Moreover, the logic according to which poor individuals do not invest in buying a smartphone does not apply to all levels of poverty. On the contrary, according to Ms. Gatti, and as a mobile operator report shows, despite being poor, individuals may want to purchase an object that is now increasingly affordable, and that connects them to the world – even though they might have to save for six months or even a year.
Nonetheless, women do not benefit from this expansion in mobile phone ownership to the same extent as men. On average, women are 29% less likely to own a mobile phone than their male counterparts. This is further complicated by the notion of household phones, as many women may not own a smartphone but may still have access to one. In effect, the household member who uses the mobile phone is traditionally the man, who brings it with him to work, leaving female household members only limited opportunities to use it. This adds a further layer of complexity that for a successful implementation of the UNDP project. Therefore, the smartphone landscape in Myanmar is changing at a very rapid pace, which leaves room for many opportunities, both on the short and, most relevant to the social goals promoted by UNDP, long-term goals.
Future challenges and opportunities for a full implementation of the app
While an area of concern for developmental programs has typically been the perception by local populations that an alien concept was imposed on their own traditions, the UNDP initiative appears to have approached the issue sensibly. The UNDP has done a great deal to make the app a grassroots product. The project is based on a “Human Centered Design Methodology” where they let the user decide what the app should look like, as well as the nature of its content. The beneficiaries were asked what they wanted to learn most about in order to include these features in the app and tailor it to their needs. Moreover, the perceptions of users are shared, therefore allowing them to express their own attitudes towards the app. While the app is only available in English and Burmese for now, UNDP is developing two more languages (Chin and Shan) corresponding to two major Burmese regions, to make it accessible to an increasing number of users. Also notable is the fact that no UNDP logo can be seen on the app. According to Ms. Gatti, all of these mechanisms make the leaders of the network feel they “own” the app.
Nonetheless, the main shortcoming faced by the iWomen app is that it may be extremely helpful in empowering women who already have access to a smartphone. Yet, segments of the population that are most affected by gender-based discrimination and violence, namely women living in more remote rural areas with higher levels of poverty and where ethnic conflict may still be present, remain out of the reach of the UNDP program. Therefore, the current network of women the UNDP program has access to already consists in a limited number of women.
This issue may be complicated further when considering men’s reactions to the app. As iWomen provides women with inspiration from female peers as well as with legal and commercial knowledge, we may anticipate that some men will react to it negatively. Women’s rights necessitates a rebalancing of power, which can sometimes mean less power for men. While most public policies seek to change women’s status in the public sphere, an inherent characteristic of the app is that it is used in their homes, therefore changing private sphere dynamics as well. The results of this effect may mean that some men will limit their wives and daughters’ use of phones, perhaps more so in rural areas.
However, it would be unrealistic to expect to already have a network reaching to all segments of the population, especially considering that the app has been working for less than a year. One also needs to bear in mind that Myanmar’s political opening is extremely recent, and that the UNDP app needs to develop in an environment often still pervaded by the military legacy, particularly in the rural areas. Moreover, despite the diffusion of mobile and Internet technology being unequally spread, it still provides hope that the UNDP app may reach an increasing number of women. However, social realities are slow to change, and as a long-term initiative, the UNDP program requires time to bear fruit.
The fact that some segments of the population will have greater authority to claim their rights is nonetheless a great improvement in gender equality for women in Myanmar. While the UNDP app has limitations, it remains a readily-available source of inspiration for an increasing number of women in Myanmar. With greater knowledge of and ability to claim their rights, these women may become leaders for change in their country, particularly if the UNDP’s objective to increase the number of women on local committees materializes. To merely have to take out your phone to find inspiration on promoting gender equality remains a powerful idea.