Women demand support for Burma's working mothers

Parliamentarians and civil society activists in Burma are calling for more concrete social welfare policies to help mothers in the workplace. Yen Snaing reports.

THREE days after giving birth to her child, Wint War Tun, a recently elected National League for Democracy (NLD) MP from Karenni State, had to attend the first day of the Lower House session in February.

Such scenarios have led parliamentarians and civil society activists to argue that Burma needs a more concrete social welfare policy to help mothers in the workplace, through the provision of childcare services and ample maternity leave.

Although the number of women in the Union Parliament has doubled from 31 to 65, the facilities for working mothers and fathers, such as family care units, are nowhere to be seen.

According to figures from the Union Election Commission (UEC), 149 women were elected among the 791 who stood for office nationwide. This includes 42 in the Union Parliament's Lower House, 23 in the Upper House and 84 in regional legislatures, putting female representation at about 13% - almost a threefold rise compared with the previous count of women lawmakers, which, according to UEC data, numbered 53 in 2014.

'The country needs to support qualified women'

Shwe Shwe Sein Latt, an Upper House parliamentarian and women's rights activist from the NLD, said the Parliament lacks facilities to accommodate families.

'There should be a separate family unit. But for that, a gendered budget is needed,' she said. 'In the Parliament, mothers need to breastfeed children. As I have observed in other [countries'] parliaments, they have breastfeeding rooms and a childcare centre, a place where the family can hang out freely.'

There should be a nursery within Burma's Parliament, she suggested, pointing out that some MPs have small children whom they have to leave behind for five years in order to complete their service in the country's capital.

'I have seen an MP working in the Parliament carrying their child,' she said of European governments. Most recently, Carolina Bascansa of Spain received media attention for bringing her breastfeeding infant son to a meeting of the Spanish Parliament in February.

The municipal guesthouse for MPs in Burma's administrative capital Naypyidaw lacks a kitchen or common cooking space, which Shwe Shwe Sein Latt sees as a shortcoming regarding the integration of families into government housing.

It is not only the right of women to be able to access childcare, but also a child's right to have the care of his or her mother, she added, advocating that childcare centres need to be present in all workplaces, not only the Parliament.

'We should have childcare centres even in villages and quarters for [small-time] vendors, or women who have to go to market,' she said. 'Here, older children have to quit school to take care of siblings when their moms go to the market [to sell goods]. If we could place those children in a childcare centre, it would be more convenient for working moms, whether they are civil servants or market vendors.'

Citing the rising participation of young and capable women in the Parliament, Shwe Shwe Sein Latt said there are probably more such women nationwide, who might be held back by current challenges facing working mothers.

'If their work, qualities and abilities were fully utilised, the country would develop faster,' she said. 'We are not saying this for [our own] opportunities. This is for our country's future and for our children . the country needs to support qualified women.'

'A full six months' leave'

Wong Mrat Wai works as a media and communications coordinator at a non-governmental organisation in Rangoon. A working mother who gave birth to a daughter three months ago and has now returned to work part-time, she wishes she could have had longer maternity leave to fully take care of her baby.

'As breastfeeding is best for the child, it's better for mother and child to be together for at least six months,' she said.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), women in Burma are legally entitled to 12 weeks of maternity leave - the ILO's stated minimum - at two-thirds pay.

If she were a civil servant, Wong Mrat Wai would be entitled to more time off: maternity leave was legally increased from three to six months for government employees in 2014. According to the law, fathers can also have two weeks of fully paid leave.

'I wish there was a law, not only for the government sector but also for the private sector and for NGOs, that gave mothers a full six months' leave,' she said.

Wong Mrat Wai's workplace does have one rare facility though - a breastfeeding room.

'Most women . can leave their child behind with grandmothers or the babies' fathers. I brought my baby [to work] as I can't leave my baby. I don't have grandmothers and fathers to [provide] care. I looked for a breastfeeding room on the first day I was back to work,' Wong Mrat Wai told The Irrawaddy.

But she soon discovered the breastfeeding room had been converted to a meeting room since most mothers did not utilise it. Only when she started to use it for its designated purpose was the room changed back to a facility for mothers and their babies. 'Personally, I want to [stay] with my child, and I want to breastfeed for at least six months. I have more stress when I get to work, thinking I need to breastfeed,' she said.

With full support from her husband to continue her work, she said she was managing, but she also imagines it will be tiring to balance work and childcare when she returns to work full-time. Ideally, there would be a nursery at her workplace, Wong Mrat Wai said, 'a comfortable place ... with toys for my child'.

'Women could work ... assured their children are in good care'

Khin Ma Ma Myo, managing director of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security Studies, was recently impressed by an offer to share childcare at a professional conference she planned to attend in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

'I was notified in the invitation that childcare facilities were available and that I could bring a child if I wanted,' she said. Such arrangements, she pointed out, ensure that women can participate in conferences and do not need to cancel due to childcare responsibilities.

In Burma, she suggests, the government could start supporting parents with such responsibilities by subsidising daycare centres in every town quarter. Special training in childcare would also create job opportunities, she added, envisioning programmes which license small-time caregivers from their homes, dependent on if the environment met agreed-upon standards.

'Then, women who are working in factories, workshops, schools and offices could work without worries, assured that their children are in good care,' Khin Ma Ma Myo said.

She warned, however, that childcare is not simply about keeping youth confined from wandering outside, but to participate in their mental and emotional development. For that, she said, Burma would need a concrete social welfare policy and a commitment to promoting women's affairs. - The Irrawaddy (   

*Third World Resurgence No. 309, May 2016, pp 46-47