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Misogyny and the media: Tackling gender inequality in Myanmar

Phuong D. Nguyen/Shutterstock

Myanmar was shut off from the world for decades. Today, fledgling democracy is paving the way for campaigners – and VSO volunteers like Jane Stageman - to tackle inequality in this rapidly changing country.

Myanmar was closed off from the world for nearly 50 years, then in 2015 held its first free elections.

Jane Stageman at International Women's Day while volunteering in Myanmar Jane Stageman

Pressing for progress: Jane Stageman, 63, at International Women's Day 2018 in Yangon, Myanmar.

British volunteer, 63-year-old Jane Stageman, arrived in Myanmar in 2016 in the wake of these democratic reforms. 

She has spent the past two years working with a VSO team to make civil society and media organisations more inclusive. 

“When the new democratic government came into being, people were free to establish organisations that they hadn't been able to before,” said Jane. 

“For the first time, many more women were able to get together and express their needs and rights.” 

Joining the gender movement 

A grassroots movement spread, with organisations campaigning on women’s issues springing up across the country and gaining traction, in a country where gender-based violence affects many women. 

Jane Stageman pictured with some of the women she worked with in Myanmar. Jane Stageman

Jane Stageman, pictured here with many of the women she worked with in Myanmar, said that for her, volunteering was 'a dream come true.'

Beliefs about gender in Myanmar are often deep-seated and dangerous – a 2016 study revealed 49% of men and 51% of women believe that physical violence towards your wife is justified, in certain circumstances.

“We know that there’s a relationship between women’s unequal and subordinate position in society, and a woman’s greater vulnerability to experiencing violence,” says Jane. 

“Myanmar is primarily an agricultural country, where social norms categorise women as unskilled labourers and carers for children and elders; not decision-makers.”

Nan Myint Tin became an inclusion champion, and then had leadership training. Jane Stageman

Nan Myint Tin has been trained by VSO in leadership skills, and is now passing on these skills to help more women become village leaders.

The forefront of change 

Over the course of eight months, Jane and her team trained 13 people in the causes and effects of discrimination against women, people with disabilities and those within the LGBT community. 

These 13 people, known as ‘Inclusion Champions’, can now go into organisations and address discrimination head on. 

The inclusion champions have so far worked with more than 40 civil society and media organisations, including the Democratic Voice of Burma, one of the major broadcasting channels in the country. The champions helped these organisations to create their first official policies around gender, LGBT and disability issues.  

The work is having a ripple effect across Myanmar.  

“The people we trained were so engaged with the work. One woman, Nan Myint Tin, wanted leadership training, so we organised a five-day training course to encourage more women to go for leadership roles at a village level.

“Nan has since run her own leadership training course for women, passing these skills onto more women.” 

&Proud, Myanmar's first LGBT choir, featuring Jane Stageman. Victoria Milko/Frontier Myanmar

Jane joined Myanmar's first every LGBT choir, &Proud.

Alongside this inclusion work, Jane stepped into the limelight to change attitudes to women, joining the country’s first ever LGBT choir. 

“At the moment, homosexuality is banned, but there are lots of brave people doing lots of brave things around LGBT rights,” said Jane. 

“Gender work is about opening up men and women's minds to different ways of doing things.”  

Jane also played a speaking role in the first ever performance of the Vagina Monologues in Myanmar.  

“One of the Myanmar women in the play explained there was no straightforward word in Myanmar for vagina - all the words being used were generally derogatory words.” 

“We can't even have a straightforward word about a woman's body without it being derogatory.” 

Language also proved important when developing a media guide, hoping to put an end to the media’s reliance of ingrained stereotypes, and ultimately reduce discrimination against those marginalised due to gender, disability and ethnicity.  

The guide advises using gender neutral terms such as police officer instead of police woman or police man. It also encourages organisations to rethink language around domestic violence, portraying women not as victims, but as survivors. 

A lifetime of supporting women 

As a volunteer in Myanmar, Jane is drawing on decades of experience helping women to assert their rights. 

“I've had a lifelong commitment to improving the position of women. It is so important to have women’s perspective as our differences in experience and social conditioning bring a vital and rounded view to issues and decisions that affect everyone. 

“From 1978 to 1992, I was part of the women’s trade unionist movement, training shop stewards in how to become more effective in campaigning for their rights.  

“In the 80s, I chaired a group campaigning to get women’s voices heard within Leeds council, by setting up a women’s committee and creating better employment opportunities for women.  

“Then, in the early 2000s, I spent three years in Buenos Aires and worked with women’s groups. I helped women to set up a conference on violence against women, which helped to lobby the government and improve legislation in Argentina. 

“Volunteering with VSO as a gender adviser in Myanmar brought all of those experiences together,” said Jane. 

We need to teach people how men end up in more dominant and powerful positions, and understand what women need to do to assert their place in the world.

Jane Stageman

Jane Stageman on the streets of Myanmar, campaigning during the Me Too movement Jane Stageman

Jane Stageman campaigning in response to the Me Too movement, on the issue of violence against women and sexual harassment in Myanmar.

Looking to the future

Jane plans to continue volunteering now she is back in the UK. The project she worked on to address gender in Myanmar, which is run in partnership with FHI 360, has just received a further five years' funding.

“I want Myanmar to have really good, protective legislation around violence against women, but also legislation around equal pay and sexual discrimination.

“There is no legislation to protect women at all in Myanmar,” said Jane. 

“Women’s groups put forward legislation when the new government was formed but it has still not passed, four years on.” 

Jane has a clear vision for the future of women in Myanmar, and around the world:

“I want women to be free to make choices about their own lives, and to live free from violence.

“As long as we have inequality in the world, those inequalities will always undermine us.”