Child Policy and Maternal Health Laws as a Form of Oppression in Burma

The Burmese government is one of the most oppressive in the world. The military has been ruling since the 1960s and has prevented any pro-democracy movements while continually abusing the rights of its citizens. A case in point is the lack of spending of the ruling regime on essential social services such as health care, which has left Burma with one of the worst maternal mortality rates in the region with 200 deaths per every 100,000 live births. The ruling regime has also continually oppressed minority groups such as the Karen community, who practice Christianity and the Rohingya community who practice Islam, by destroying their villages, displacing them, and using methods such as rape and starvation to destroy their communities.

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Recently, new maternal health laws have been introduced which have led to progress in that area. However many are concerned that the discriminatory implementation of such laws could be oppressive on ethnic minorities as they can be used to control their birth rates. This can be seen in the most recent Population Control Bill adopted by the Burmese Parliament. The Bill stipulates that “child spacing” take place between children which could lead to a positive change and add to the advances already made regarding maternal health. However, what some fear could be a danger to ethnic minorities is the fact that there are no safeguards within the law that would prevent it from being implemented in a discriminatory or coercive manner that could oppress minorities by forcing them to have fewer children thus destroying their communities.

Widney Brown, Director of Programs at Physicians for Human Rights has stated “Preventable maternal and infant deaths are devastating in many developing countries. Providing information on reproduction and the means to control the number and spacing of children is important, as long as fertility controls do not become a means to suppress the growth of marginalized groups, without a clear non-coercion and non-discrimination clause, this bill should never have moved forward.” Based on Burma’s history with similar child policy laws these fears appear to be well-founded.

A History of Child Policy Laws

Government supported campaigns against the Rohingya and other Muslim minorities have displaced at least 140,000 of those groups who fled to camps with very poor conditions. This further exasperated their lack of access to healthcare services as they already had little access to government hospitals and midwives, with their villages already being virtually cut off from such services. There have also been discriminatory policies implemented to regulate the family life of the Rohingya and other Muslim minorities.

A two child policy was introduced in the Arakan State in 2005 in an attempt to address what is perceived to be a rapid population growth amongst the Rohingya communities with claims that they are growing at a faster rate than Buddhist communities. Sectarian conflict between the Arakanese and Rohingya and other Muslim minorities in 2012 have lead for calls by the Arakanese Buddhist protesters for these laws to be enforced once again. In addition to that, for nearly 20 years Burmese authorities have imposed a system of pre-marriage government authorization for Rohingyas. This system is extremely corrupt leaving couples waiting years in order to get approval and forcing them to pay heavy bribes.

Both these policies have left a negative impact on the Rohingya community as punishments for having more than two children include fines and imprisonment. Because couples have to wait before getting approval for marriages some women become pregnant before they get married. Such women resort to illegal and unsafe abortions in order to avoid paying fines and going to prison, often seeking self-induced abortions at home. Supporters of the two child policy claim that it is not discriminatory and is meant to advance the state of women and the maternal health of theses minority communities, by requiring women who are uneducated and living in poverty to have a limited number of children and therefore encourage family planning. It is claimed by some that the decrease in maternal mortality rates from 520 deaths per every 100,000 births in 1990 to 200 deaths per every 100,000 births can be attributed to such policies. However, not much advancement can take place without actually addressing the root causes of the high mortality rate which are the lack of access to education and health care services particularly amongst ethnic minorities.

Fears for the Future

Due to the history of such child policies and maternal health laws concerning ethnic minorities, fears that the current Bill passed by parliament will cement such discriminatory laws into state law appear to be well-founded. Although it is hoped that such laws will have a positive impact on the infant mortality rate and maternal health and advance the state of women in this regard, the international community must take great care in order to raise awareness if such laws are implemented in a discriminatory manner with the aim of oppressing these ethnic minorities further and destroying their communities outright.

About Seema Kawar

Seema is currently a trainee Lawyer in Jordan. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Law in the UK and her Masters in Law in International Development Law and Human Rights from the University of Warwick in the UK. She has a deep interest in women’s rights and refugee rights issues and has volunteered a Sisterhood is Global Institute in Jordan, a local women’s rights organization, and as an assistant caseworker helping asylum seekers from various backgrounds in the UK. She is interested in learning more about the legal, social and political issues the hinder women’s rights and progress in the MENA region and contributing to improving the status of women in the MENA Region and other parts of the developing world.