Letter Six–Ema

Who Defines What You Can Do?

“The union shall, upon specified qualifications being fulfilled, in appointing or assigning duties to civil services

personnel, not discriminate for or against any citizen of

the republic of the Union of Myanmar based on race, birth,

religion and sex. However, nothing in this Section shall

prevent appointment of men to the positions that are suitable

for men only.”

(Constitution of the Union of Myanmar 2008).

This excerpt from the Myanmar Constitution reads to me like a poem. Partly that’s because it formatted itself to sprawl down the page with interesting line breaks. Partly, though, it’s because when I read poetry I feel more astonished every time I get to the last line.

Positions that are suitable for men only…

I guess I’m astonished at the plainness of this statement. But it’s not all that outlandish. It says outright the thoughts that many people—women and men, in every country around the world—think every day. And those thoughts are some variation of this idea: there are women’s jobs, and there are men’s jobs. Women should do women’s jobs, and men should do men’s jobs.I took a class at the Duke School of Law last semester (it seems awfully long ago now!) called Gender and the Law taught by Professor Katherine Bartlett. It was a survey course about how gender issues are treated in American law. Some of the frameworks we studied included Formal Equality (men and women are equal and should be treated as such) and Substantive Equality (there are some differences between men and women—for instance, in general women but not men can bear children—and these differences should be accounted for in policies so that the outcomes—for instance, employment opportunities—for men and women are the same).And I kept thinking about these two frameworks in my research. Were women and men formally equal? Did they have the same opportunities? Not really. Before CDD, it was clear that women could not be on village committees. It was equally clear that women were more or less officially the sole doers of housework. Were women substantively equal? It seemed even less so. Women received no affirmative action to join the CDD committees, for example. There was no childcare center that made it easier for them to join—instead they woke up earlier to cook and stayed up later doing washing, all so that they could attend meetings.We (and by we I mean women but also men, because when women have equal rights everyone is better off) are lucky in the States to have laws that make men and women formally equal for the most part. Substantive equality is the area that needs the most work and consideration so that women and men can be truly equal. But in Myanmar the law (as cited above) says otherwise. When men are protected from losing their positions (protected from women who might take them, I presume), that inverts formal equality. If men and women were equal, there wouldn’t be positions that were “suitable for men only.”

These positions were ones that involved making decisions and leadership. Leaders have influence. They can make change, or they can keep things the way they are. And I think the problem with only having men in leadership isn’t that men are out to get women—it’s just that they’re not very aware of women’s needs. As Myanmar moves toward a more democratic state (and the government does say that democracy is its goal), then the idea of leadership being unsuitable for women doesn’t make sense to be written into law. And when there are narratives about “men’s jobs” and “women’s jobs” in the Constitution, surely these notions also stand strong in the minds of the people.

How did this show up in “real life” in what I looked at? There were tons of examples. For instance, I would ask the following questions in the focus-group discussions, to both the men and the women:

“What skills or knowledge do men teach women in the project?”

Both men and women usually came up with a few examples: how wide to build the road drain, how to make grievances, etc.

“What skills or knowledge do women teach men in the project?”

The response was classic. The men just looked at me. They couldn’t think of anything that women taught men. The women would often giggle or smirk: imagine that (!), their faces seemed to say, imagine us knowing things the men didn’t know!

Of course, women did know things men didn’t know; women had a lot to teach men. But they did not recognize their roles—because to teach is to begin to lead, and traditionally women are not leaders.

In one village, the village leader recalled a useful exercise that helped the community identify women’s and men’s strengths. With the CF’s facilitation, women and men wrote timelines of their daily calendar, which encouraged discussion and debate. By doing this, he said, they came to know “who I am” and “what I can do.” He said the exercise encouraged dialogue about women’s and men’s roles.

The questions of “who am I” and “what can I do” are the ones that define participation, decision-making, and ultimately, leadership. Their answers help to identify the skills people bring to the table. For women, who often do most of the housework, these capacities include planning, organizing, time management, and communication. Repeatedly, committee members identified all of these abilities as essential to CDD work, but they hardly ever related them to women’s traditional roles. If women never have the chance to consider the question, “what can I do,” they may never realize the extent of their capacity before any specialized training or experience. Men, too, should consider what women bring to the table as planners, organizers, mobilizers, and leaders.