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A Fresh Start for Women in Myanmar?

Muslim women at a refugee camp in Rakhine State, western Myanmar, last month, where deadly ethnic violence has flared between members of the Rohingya, who are mostly Muslim, and Buddhists.

BANGKOK — Feminists, like business people, are sensing opportunity amid the recent political liberalization in Myanmar.

Independent women’s groups are already ‘‘very active’’ there, said John Hendra, an assistant secretary-general of the United Nations, speaking in a telephone interview shortly after he visited the country in October.

U.N. Women, of which Mr. Hendra is a deputy director, is planning to set up its first representation in Myanmar soon.
As I write in my Female Factor column this week, there was another ‘‘first’’ last month for women in Asia, when the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, gathered in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, for its first ministerial-level meeting on women.

Both moves are a sign of a spreading recognition among governments and international agencies that women’s issues in Asia need to be heightened.

Mr. Hendra described the Asean meeting, which he attended, as ‘‘a very good opportunity’’ to push a stronger, pro-woman agenda in Asia, which is home to about 60 percent of the world’s women.

In Myanmar, the United Nations hopes to start by gathering data on the condition of women ‘‘to get a really good diagnostic of the situation there, because there is really not very much known,’’ said Mr. Hendra.

Other major goals include passing a law to address gender and domestic violence in Myanmar. Currently Myanmar, Laos and China all are lacking such legislation. U.N. Women also wants to train woman negotiators and mediators in conflict situations in Myanmar, where deadly ethnic violence has flared between members of the Rohingya, who are mostly Muslim, and Buddhists.

‘‘We are looking at the issue of the broader peace and development process,’’ said Mr. Hendra.
‘‘Despite a lot of rhetoric and Security Council resolutions, there is still a very low number of women mediators, particularly in the situation in Myanmar,’’ he said. ‘‘I met some civil society women’s groups who are very active and I will see how we can facilitate our role to make more women mediators.’’

More broadly, he said, the United Nations is concerned about a ‘‘push-back’’ on women’s sexual and reproductive rights worldwide. Gender violence and maternal mortality remain severe problems, and women’s representation in parliaments remains low, averaging about 20 percent; it is even lower in Asia, at around 17 percent.

Discussion is now shifting to what will replace the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals, which were set in 2000 and will expire in 2015. Mr. Hendra called for them to have a stronger gender focus, saying women’s needs urgently needed to be ‘‘mainstreamed.’’

‘‘We need to be looking at really putting women more at the center of the discussion,’’ he said. The goals adopted for the post-2015 world should be ‘‘truly transformative,’’ he said, adding the issue was a focus of his talks with the Asean ministers in Vientiane.

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