Muslim Women and Children Confront Challenges in Myanmar

“I wouldn’t have to live this life if I wasn’t a Muslim.” -Anwar Sardad, a 10-year-old child laboring in Myanmar, October 2013

Since largely democratic elections in 2011 ushered in Thein Sein as Myanmar’s president, the international community has rewarded perceived political and economic reforms with eased international sanctions, foreign business investments and enhanced public diplomacy initiatives.

Most recently, in October 2013, Myanmar was awarded the rotating chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for 2014, in what was widely regarded as a diplomatic prize for its broad strides toward democratic reform. President Thein Sein declared the theme of Burma’s incoming chairmanship as, “moving forward in unity in a peaceful and prosperous community.”

Still, Myanmar’s struggle with democracy is beset with an unfortunate human rights record marred by government sanctioned sectarian violence. Muslims, who constitute approximately five percent of Myanmar’s estimated sixty million population, continue to suffer from discriminatory laws and policies that infringe upon the free exercise of religion, freedom of movement, and access to education and equal employment opportunity.

Notably, the group remains stateless because the country’s 1982 Citizenship Act deprives them of citizenship rights further exasperating their struggle for survival.

To be sure, the human rights violations committed against the Rohingya and other Muslims are widespread and systematic with no accountability, as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, has recently observed.

In the midst of this violence, Muslim women and children are increasingly finding themselves in vulnerable situations that have yet to be adequately recognized and addressed. This article discusses two related issues.

Discriminatory Birth Control Regulations

For decades, local regulations — also referred to as the two-child rule — targeted Rohingya Muslims and were designed to control the group’s population growth.

Burmese authorities enforced the policy together with regulations requiring Muslim couples to secure official approval (by paying bribes) prior to marrying. Couples must provide a signed statement that they would not have more than two children; violations of the two-child rule could result in fines and imprisonment.

Women who violate the regulation frequently choose to flee the country, impacting their family and communities. Or, they opt for a back-alley abortion thus endangering their physical health and mental well-being.

A child born in violation of the regulation is deprived of any legal status and may be placed on an official blacklist. As a result, s/he cannot access education, receive official permission to travel, marry or acquire property. They may also be arrested and detained. According to one government report, there are approximately 60,000 unregistered Rohingya children in Myanmar, today.

In May 2013, President Thein Sein indicated that his administration would review the two-child regulation. However, at the time of this writing, the policy remains intact.

Hard Labor, Education Inequality for Children

Anwar Sardad, quoted above, performs physical labor daily — collecting and carrying rocks for eight hours — to earn the equivalent of one dollar a day from a government construction agency to help support his family. His circumstances are similar to the majority of Rohingya children residing in Rakhine State, where approximately eighty to 90 percent of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims live.

The children’s income helps them and their families eat. The region suffers from the country’s highest chronic malnutrition rates severely impacting children’s mental and physical development. Additionally, children cannot access adequate vaccination coverage leaving them exposed to practically every preventable childhood disease.

Even where severe food insecurity has not forced poverty-stricken families to put their children to hard labor, Rohingya children suffer from formal and substantive educational inequality. At government run schools, children have no chairs or desks and government appointed teachers provide instruction in a language most students cannot understand.

The teacher to student ratio is estimated to be 1:114, but teachers are frequently absent and fail to secure substitutes to teach in their place. Such circumstances undermine an effective learning environment helping to account for 80 percent illiteracy rates among the Rohingya.

Peace, security and democratic governance can only find a home in Myanmar from the rule of just laws. Indeed, as articulated by U.S. House Resolution 418, introduced by U.S. Congressman James McGovern (D-MA), Burma must end its persecution of the Rohingya people — men, women and children.

As an initial measure, Myanmar must amend its 1982 Citizenship Act, bringing it into compliance with international law. In its current form, the Act denies access to citizenship to the majority of an estimated one million Muslims within Burma’s borders, with devastating effects for women and children. In so doing, the new law must ensure citizenship rights for Rohingya and other Muslims who are otherwise rendered stateless in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

While this piece has focused on Muslim women and children as victims, it is significant to recognize their capacity to become their own heroes. To that end, new programmatic initiatives emphasizing progress and development for women in Burma should be inclusive of Rohingya and other Muslim women. Such programs should encompass restorative justice mechanisms to help rehabilitate victims of human rights abuses and reintegrate them back into their communities.

Indeed, with proper resources and support, women and children (recall Malala) can serve as agents of constructive change within their families, communities and nation — initially as survivors and eventually as thrivers, too.