Myanmar continues on its path to join the group of middle income countries. Economic growth rates have averaged some 7.3 per cent annually from 2012 to 2016, outperforming the East Asia and Pacific region average of 6.9 per cent. Nonetheless, patterns of growth reveal a high dependence on capital intensive resource extraction, with little economic diversification. Performance on the creation of decent jobs has been weak, despite the government’s public commitments to promoting more inclusive growth. As a consequence, the benefits of the growth have not been equally distributed with resulting rising inequality.
While growing inequality and poverty affects different groups of people, women are often most at risk of losing out from economic growth because they traditionally lack access to resources, financial services, have lower skills level and are often concentrated in a narrower range of occupations often with poor remuneration.
According to the 2015 Myanmar Labour Force Survey (LFS) female labour force participation is 47.7 per cent compared to men’s 78 per cent. For those women who work, they are overwhelmingly engaged in the informal economy. Some 90.7 per cent of women who work are in the informal economy, compared to 77.4 per cent for men. The informal economy is notorious for marginal pay, poor working conditions, long hours and low levels of job security, and little or no protection under the law.
Myanmar has managed to reduce poverty consistently since 2010. In the latest estimate from the World Bank, based on 2015 data, some 32 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, down from 48 per cent in 2004/5. However, that estimate is likely to hide significant differences between men and women. While national level poverty rates specifically for women are not available research has shown women are more likely to be concentrated in vulnerable employment such as self-employed or helping out in the family business. The lower status of women is also reflected in the lower average earning which women experience. According to the 2015 LFS, the average monthly wage for women was 119.04 thousand Kyat (about 90 USD) while for men it was 147.20 thousand Kyat (about 110 USD).
Global and regional indexes for gender inequality also reflect Myanmar’s relatively weak position in rankings. In 2015, it was ranked 80th out 188 countries in the Gender Inequality Index, and the 2014 Social Institutions and Gender Index placed the country at 84th of 108 countries and 10th of ten countries in East Asia and the Pacific.
Myanmar is actively committed to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) by 2030. In this context, women’s economic empowerment will be critical. Not only for the achievement of SDG 5 on gender equality but also for the achievement of many of the other goals. Women’s empowerment and gender equality can be significant in addressing a range of other issues including children’s welfare, health and education. Thus promoting gender equality will be essential if Myanmar hopes to achieve all the SDGs by 2030.
An important element here is the relatively low participation rates of women in the labour market. If more women were to enter the labour market it would enable Myanmar to benefit from a ‘gender dividend’ as also highlighted by UNFPA in the 2014 census report. However, such a dividend can only be realized if women have equal access to education, job opportunities, land, credit and other resources.
Women’s economic empowerment is clearly a high priority for the Government of Myanmar. The State Counsellor has on several occasions highlighted the need to promote the economic empowerment of women, including through entrepreneurship as she did at the ASEAN Business and Investment Summit in November 2017 in the Philippines. The Government’s strong commitment to inclusive growth and poverty alleviation offers potential for women to be regarded as dynamic economic actors rather than passive recipients of social welfare. There is great scope for a more systematic inclusion of women as economic actors within the framework of Myanmar’s national development policies and plans.
One critical area to support women’s economic empowerment is through supporting entrepreneurship and business development. The micro and small enterprise sector is traditionally the greatest creator of employment. A key element to realising this potential is the creation of an enabling environment for enterprises. Currently Myanmar ranks 171 out of 190 in the World Bank Doing Business index, suggesting that improving access to services and streamlining registration procedures and reducing costs will be an important measure to support private sector development, and women’ entrepreneurship in particular. There is currently little data available on levels of entrepreneurship for women, or the sizes of their businesses in Myanmar. However, we do know that women often have poor access to financial services and lack the resources and skills training to successfully start and grow businesses.
Women also tend to be concentrated in enterprises in sectors characterised by fierce competition and marginal returns. Providing support would allow women to increase their productivity and earnings potential. Support could include skills training and access to business advisory services, technology, market information and land. Developing appropriate financial products including opportunities for savings, credit and insurance to help mitigate risks will be essential. Furthermore, building and strengthening associations, would enable women entrepreneurs to collectively engage, negotiate and advocate. Specific initiatives such as targets for a gender balance in public procurement can significantly open up new economic opportunities for women, as would incentives for banks to have more female entrepreneurs as customers.
As Myanmar and the world celebrate International Women’s Day the country can take pride in knowing there is great potential to achieve SDG 5 on gender equality, but focussed efforts are needed to make it happen and to realise the gender dividend. UNDP has a long history of promoting women’s economic empowerment in Myanmar. This support continues and is a key element of UNDP’s new country programme (2018-2022). A new joint UNDP/UNCDF project will target 150,000 women to facilitate their access to financial services over the next 5 years. UNDP is committed to ensure that no woman is left behind and will continue its engagement with the Government of Myanmar to promote gender equality and women’s economic empowerment within the framework of the 2030 Agenda. This is certainly a goal worth pursuing to help achieve more inclusive and sustainable development in Myanmar.