Family is very important in Burma. When asked how many people are in their family many people sometimes give a number in 40s or 50s as uncles, great aunts, second cousins, many of whom live nearby, are often considered part of the immediate family. Burmese have a difficult time understanding why family members in America live in cities in different parts of the country. [Source: Joel Swerdlow, National Geographic, July 1995]

A newly married couple may live with the parents of one partner (often the parents of the wife) but soon establish their own household. The nuclear family is the primary domestic unit, but it may include extended family members such as unmarried siblings, widowed parents, or more distant unmarried or widowed relatives. The husband is nominally the head of the household, but the wife has considerable authority. Women are responsible for most domestic chores. [Source: Countries and Their Cultures everyculture.com ]

The nuclear family tends to be more common than extended families. Relationship are based more on relative age, generation, comparability and sex than by kinship. There are no kinship based groups beyond the family. Terms of address reflect relative age, seniority and respect rather than a category of kinship. The strongest bond in a family has traditionally been between mother and daughter which remain strong throughout life.

Nuclear families tend to live in their own compounds. But many household are made up of extended families or compound families. Descent is reckoned bilaterally. Traditionally, there were no family names. Property generally is divided equally among the children after the parents die. Under Myanmar law, children can inherit their parents’s property irrespective of sex.

Family Relations and Socialization in Myanmar

Hong Sar Channaibanya, a Burmese-born Australian, wrote: “Although personal issues are regarded as a private matter the family has a role in influencing important life decisions if a person is not married or lives in their parents’ home. Parents expect some return from children when they are getting old. Serving and caring for parents is regarded as good practice and gains an individual merit from a spiritual perspective. Relations between parents and children are exceptionally strong in both good and bad times. Offering parents money and other material support is widely approved of and indeed expected in the community and families expect to shoulder their burdens together. [Source: Hong Sar Channaibanya, Canberra, Australia May 2010 ++]

“Burmese women usually maintain cultural practice as a social norm at home. They expect a secure relationship and financial support from their husband. Women manage domestic issues in the household and the man expects these to be done to be done whilst he is earning a living. However, some women prefer to work in the paid workforce while also raising children at home. There is no problem with a woman earning and raising children as long as the woman still feels secure in her relationship. ++

“Family cohesion is reflected in shared cooking and eating during festivals. For example people will commonly gather at the parent’s house to eat and cook for several days over a major festival. Grand parents can also be important carers of grandchildren. They may care for several or even seven children without financial reward, but then sons and daughters are expected to care for their parents in the later years.Young people and children are expected to obey their parents and elder siblings and freedom of expression is not widely practice at home. Older people always play a big role in decisions for younger people, rightly and wrongly. In fact acceptance of difference is not commonly practiced in society at large. People rarely value different opinions and comments either at home or at workplace and a sense of compromise is seldom valued.” ++

Happy Myanmar Family

According to Myanmar government: “Much has been said about the institution of family in Myanmar as based on specific duties and responsibilities on the part of husband, wife, parents and offspring. These rights and duties are taken seriously and adhered to closely (although being human there may be lapses). Love and respect. rights and responsibilities are the foundations of a Myanmar family irrespective of religious creed. This holds true today as it did in ancient times and is a tradition that we hold dear. But there is another basic element that knits a family together although it has not been given much prominence. And that is the love and humour that is very much a part of Myanmar family life. Not much has been said about the fun and laughter that a Myanmar family enjoys, but it is there. The ability of the Myanmar people to look on the lighter, if not funny side of life, is carried over into family relationship. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information =]

“There is the evening meal with the family around the table. The first choice morsel goes to father, but it somehow gets back to the tiniest tot or others in turn. The parents eat sparingly if they are not affluent and see that the children get the lion's share. But you should listen to the chatter and banter at the dinner table. Father teases one or the other of the children. Myanmar children can be mischievous and deliberately let cats out of the bag. - about mother scrimping on meat and groceries to buy the latest 'batik'. Or someone or other will say artlessly that father's breath smells tangy or sour- if he has had a secret nip or two on the way home much to mother's annoyance. =

A pre-teen son will try to support a staggering drunken father and put him to bed and an elder daughter babysits younger brothers and sister for mother who is out trying to supplement the family's income. When such a family comes into a windfall, they will all get dressed in their best and get on a crowded bus or mini-bus to go the pagoda or to the zoo if they should happen to live in Yangon. In smaller towns and villages they will go to a video hall (for want of a better word) or go see an all-night drama (zat pwe) at some pagoda festival. The children will gorge themselves on ice-lollipops and all kinds of roasted things - corn. peanuts. pumpkin and sunflower seeds or a wide variety of Myanmar snacks. Each of them, if lucky, may have a helium balloon or at the very least a Myanmar papiere mache doll to play with. ++

“If a foreign visitor is observant enough, he will probably see on weekends or on holidays a family dressed in their best: the youngest child in the mother's arms. the second youngest astride the father's shoulders and the rest tugging at mother's skirt or father's pasoe straggling along the sidewalk on their way to catch a bus home. The parents look hot and exhausted and the children are tired too. But for them all it has been a day of fun and excitement, a day they will talk about for a long time afterwards, till the next holiday comes around.

Men and Gender Divisions in Myanmar

There are no sharp division of labor. Men cook and take care of babies. Women are bared only from monkhood. Myanmar parents favour their sons over their daughters but the latter are treasured as well. Daughters are not considered a burden as no dowry is paid to the bridegroom when they marry. Traditional Myanmar women are not aggressive and usually play second fiddle to their husbands. Women are expected to help with the household chores and take care of their aged parents more than men. Where social life is concerned, unmarried women and young men tend to mix with members of the same sex. Between married couples public displays of affection are rarely seen. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information =]

The father of a family is the "Ein Oo Nat" (Lord of the forefront of the house). Which also implies that the mother rules the rest of the household. The term "Lord of the front of the house" will probably conjure up a stern and remote figure to be approached warily with humility and respect. Far be it. There is even a popular song "Hpay Hpay Gyi Ko Chit Tai" meaning "We love big Daddy". Generally, we think father melts quicker than mother when a child sheds a few crocodile tears. Mother sees through the children's foibles and fables and when she picks up a cane children are apt to run crying to father. =

According to Countries and Their Cultures: “Both men and women do agricultural work, but individual tasks are often gender-specific. Men prepare the land for planting and sow seeds, and women transplant rice seedlings. Harvesting is done by both men and women. Men thresh the rice. Most domestic work is done by women. During ceremonies, however, men are involved in food preparation. A variety of traditional handicrafts are made within the household or by specialists. Items of metal, wood, or stone generally are made by men, and weaving usually is done by women. Pottery, basketry, plaiting, making lacquerware, and making umbrellas can be done by men or women. Small-scale market selling and itinerant trading are conducted by both sexes. Transportation of goods or people by animal, carts, boat, or motor vehicle is done mainly by men. Religious specialists and traditional curers generally are male, but sometimes they are female. Spirit mediums can be male or female. Traditional theatrical and musical performances involve both genders. Women work mainly in teaching and nursing. [Source: Countries and Their Cultures everyculture.com **]

Women in Myanmar

Burmese women have traditionally had more freedoms than other women in Southeast Asia. They retain name after marriage, wears no wedding rings and have property rights and freedom of movement. However, military rule has undermined the status of women, especially at the higher levels of government and commerce. Women, however, play a significant role in the political opposition to the regime.

Historically, women in Burma (Myanmar) have had a unique social status in Burmese society. According to the research made by Daw Mya Sein, Burmese women "for centuries – even before recorded history" owned a "high measure of independence" and had retained their "legal and economic rights" despite the influences of Buddhism and Hinduism. Burma once had a matriarchal system that includes the exclusive right to inherit oil wells and the right to inherit the position as village head. Burmese women were also appointed to high offices by Burmese kings, can become chieftainesses and queens. [Source: Wikipedia]

According to Myanmar government: “The Status of women in the Union of Myanmar is unique. Traditionally, women have enjoyed equal rights with men in all crucial areas such as education, health, employment, social and political activities. As women represent more than half the population of the nation, the active participation of the womenfolk is vital in the State's endeavours to build a developed nation. Therefore, the national policies and programs for the advancement of women both in urban and rural areas, especially in the border areas have been given priority to enable the State to utilize the full strength of women. [Source: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Myanmar]

Women of Burma: a Tradition of Hard Work and Independence

In 1958, Daw Mya Sein wrote in The Atlantic: “To people who come to Burma for the first time there are two things about the status of our women that seem to impress them with particular force. My foreign friends have often told me that they are surprised to see an ordinary Burmese woman sitting at her stall in a bazaar, dressed in the usual htamein and jacket, her hair arranged on top of her head in the traditional manner, often smoking a cigar—and handling her trade with all the hard-headed business acumen of a man. Or, in an agricultural family, the wife may be helping with the planting, the reaping, the winnowing. If her husband is a cartman, a Burmese woman may perform her share of the labor. You can see her in business houses, signing contracts and making decisions for the firm, or find her in any of the professions or in parliament. It all seems quite different from the familiar picture of the down-trodden, backward Asian woman. [Source: Daw Mya Sein, The Atlantic, February 1958 ]

“Yet on a social occasion you will often find that the Burmese women cluster together on one side of the room and leave their men to talk to each other in a group of their own. You will see, at a meal, that the men are served first, that their wives offer them every deference within the home. On a street there is nothing unusual in the sight of a man walking ahead while his wife follows a few paces behind carrying the bundles.

“The apparent paradox of these observations is, in fact, quite an accurate indication of the rather special place that Burmese women occupy in our society. For centuries —even before recorded history, from all we can deduce—Burmese women have accepted as their right a high measure of independence. The Buddhist and the Hindu influences that came to our country at a somewhat later date may have modified the social status of women, but we have always retained our legal and economic rights. In my own research work in the village system of Burma I have even found vestiges of a matriarchal system which must have flourished here at one time. The inheritance of certain oil wells, for instance, belonged exclusively to women; in some cases the inheritance to the headmanship of a village was through the female line. To this day we have no family surnames in Burma and a woman keeps her own name after marriage.

“Much of what appears to be a retiring attitude among Burmese women in their social life is actually explained by the difference of Burmese manners from Western manners. In the West the tradition of chivalry (in however diluted a form) dictates many of the surface attitudes to women. We have no such tradition in Burma, but I don't think that our women feel inferior as a result. They have considerable authority in the home — they usually handle the family finances, for instance —and in many ways more freedom than Western women. Because of our family system, there are nearly always cousins or sisters or aunts or other relatives who live in the household. This means that there is always someone in the family to take care of the children and the mother is free to have a job or profession outside the home. The children, meanwhile, are taught at an early age to help in the house and in their mother's work outside. You will, for example, often find a girl of seven or eight sitting with her mother in a shop, learning how to sell the goods or helping out during a busy time.

“Altogether, in our social life as well as in our public life, we feel that we, as Burmese women, occupy a privileged and independent position. It is a position for which we are trained — almost imperceptibly, and with love and security—from childhood. It is a position which is not limited either by marriage or by motherhood, and which allows us, eventually, to fit ourselves into the life, the work, and all the rewards that our country has to offer equally with our men.

Daw Mya Sein, born in 1904 in Moulmein, is of Mon and Arakanese stock. Her distinguished career typifies the increasingly active role of women in Burmese public life. Mother of two children, she has still found time to be headmistress of several schools, editor and broadcaster, first roman elected to the Rangoon City Corporation, delegate to the London Round Table Conference of 1931 and the Paris UNESCO Conference of 1946, President of the National Council of Women, and a leader in social work. She is Lecturer in history at Rangoon University and has made two lecture tours in the United Stales.

History of Women in Myanmar

Daw Mya Sein wrote in The Atlantic: “Our more recent history has done little to diminish our ancient rights. During the days of the Burmese kings, women were frequently appointed to high office and became leaders of a village, chieftainess, and even ruled as queen. And in a series of Burmese folk tales concerning wise and remarkable decisions in law, which have been collected by Dr. Htin Aung, the judge in each of the stories is a woman called "Princess Learned-in-the-Law." All these fields of administration, government service, law, medicine or business are always open to any Burmese woman who wishes to enter them. [Source: Daw Mya Sein, The Atlantic, February 1958 ]

“With this background of history and custom in Burma, it is not really surprising that Burmese women have accepted their place in public life as a natural part of their status in society. On landed estates in the past it often happened that a woman, after she had been left a widow, more than doubled or trebled the family property through her own efforts. Before the war, businesses were mostly in the hands of foreigners, but in postwar Burma, as business opportunities arose for Burmese, the women as well as the men took advantage of them. The idea of big businesses, of import-export firms, of offices or shops being run by women (which so surprises the foreigner) seems perfectly ordinary to the Burmese. Equally, women have responded to the educational openings in postwar Burma. For example, at the last university convocation that I attended, about half of the graduating class in the school of medicine were women.

“In politics we have never had much of a feminist movement because in our society the problem of equal rights had never arisen. However, under British rule Burma was considered part of India and we were governed according to the same constitution. In 1927, therefore, we did have a little bit of a feminist movement to abolish the clause which provided that women could not stand for election to the Legislative Council. We Burmese women took it for granted that this disqualification clause should be deleted, so we thought we would have a token demonstration. About ten of us sent out an appeal to the women of Rangoon to join in showing our support for a resolution introduced in the Legislative Council for the deletion of the sex-disqualification clause. More than a hundred women came to the office of the Rangoon City Corporation (of which we were allowed to be members) and we marched with banners and placards to the Legislative Council, followed through the streets by a large crowd of spectators.

“We were amazed to discover that the British officials were not very keen about women getting into the Legislature. We assumed that it must be the British Government that made the objection because they knew that the women who would seek election were bound to back the nationalists. Several of us were warned against joining the demonstration. I was called up twice by certain officials and was told that it would be to my detriment to make this protest. When our procession set out we found the streets were heavily guarded by mounted police. The Secretariat building has four gates, and when we reached it we found that three of them were closed, chained and padlocked. At the fourth a mounted policeman gave us a letter from the Commissioner of Police telling us to disperse. We broke up quite peacefully, certain that we had made our point.

“I think that ours was one of the first political demonstrations in Burma, and although we were not immediately successful, our feminist feeling lasted only two years. In 1929 a woman was elected for the first time to the Legislature. Since then we have had no trouble, and at the present moment we have six women members in parliament.”

Inheritance and Family Roles of Women in Myanmar

Daw Mya Sein wrote in The Atlantic: “In most of Asia women have had to fight for equality with men primarily on three matters: marriage, divorce, and inheritance. In Burma we have been singularly fortunate in possessing this equality even before we knew it was a problem.,,, In Asia a woman's right of inheritance has, perhaps, occasioned more acrimonious argument and fiercer resistance than any other single aspect of women's status. Political rights and franchise have come to Asian women comparatively easily — with less opposition, in fact, than Western women found — but the question of equality in inheritance is still hotly debated in many parts of Asia. Here too, Burmese women find that their traditional law recognizes them equally with men, and all through our history we have had full inheritance rights. [Source: Daw Mya Sein, The Atlantic, February 1958 ]

“These rights are ensured by the rather odd fact that under Burmese Buddhist Law neither a man nor a woman can write a will. All property must be handed on according to the laws of succession. This means that during a marriage a husband and wife are joint owners of all property acquired during their marriage. If the man dies first, the woman automatically inherits — and, besides, she becomes the head of the family with full authority. In the same way, if a woman dies first, the man inherits. If he has more than one wife, there are laws laid down to deal with the complications of inheritance that this situation might raise, laws, that is, which decide which part of the property was accrued before marriage, which part during the marriage, and how it should be divided. Only when both the parents die do the children divide the property among themselves, and then, too, sons and daughters inherit equal shares.

“With this degree of freedom and equality in our public life, how does it happen that Burmese women seem, within the family, to accept a subservient position? In this I think, perhaps, that appearances are rather deceptive to the foreigner. In Burmese society we have never had the kind of parties and entertainments that are usual in the West. We have, of course, our own amusements — a shinpyu ceremony or a big wedding party or something like that — at which we meet. In the cities, especially Rangoon, where "Western-style parties" are beginning to be part of our life, we are apt to carry over our own social habits. The men will sit together and the women will sit together because it is assumed that they have more to say to one another. At a big dinner party or an informal picnic, it is quite customary to feed the men first because we know that on the whole they are the busy ones who may have an appointment or work that they must fulfill. We take this still further — even if a woman has a job or a profession, when her husband is transferred to another place or post, she will leave her work and start again in the place where he is assigned. We like to give precedence to our men in our own homes because we acknowledge them, until their death, as head of the household. Possibly we can afford to offer them this courtesy because we are secure in our rights and status. But part of the deference we offer them stems from the influence of Buddhism in our country. We believe that when a new Buddha comes to the world it will be as a man (though, to be sure, one of us who is now a woman may, in a later life, be born as a man and eventually progress to Buddhahood). We feel that this gives men an inherent superiority: mentally, they can reach higher than women.”

Women's Rights and Abuse of Women in Myanmar

In Myanmar there were no legal restrictions against a husband/father physically abusing his wife or child. Domestic violence has traditionally been regarded as private matter. Parents play a key role in dealing with domestic crisis and provide a mediation process for families with conflict. Siblings tend to be the most trusted people in the family when a crisis occurs in the family. Older sisters take a mother role if the mother is not at home. [Source: Hong Sar Channaibanya, Canberra, Australia May 2010]

In 2000, the Asian Women's Resource Exchange (AWORC) published a report entitled Human Rights in Burma from the Forum News (August 1998) describing that by tradition, Burmese women are maternal self-abnegators, meaning that these women "consistently forego their own needs in order to give their children first priority." The report also indicated that rural and urban Burmese women were affected by the deteriorating economic climate in Burma. As a result, Burmese families were "increasingly prioritizing the rights of males over females to limited resources." These changes affected the access of Burmese women to nutrition, medical services, vocational training, and other educational opportunities. Burmese women became unwilling porters and unpaid laborers for the military, including becoming victims of slavery, murder, torture, rape, and attacks. Historically, urban Burmese women "enjoyed high levels of social power" but later became confronted with restrictions on speech and limitations in acquiring high level positions in both private and public offices. According to AWORC, only a few number of Burmese women receive education related to reproductive rights and safe birth control practices, thus making them prone to being infected by HIV and AIDS. [Source: Wikipedia]

“The Myanmar National Committee for Women's Affairs (MNWCWA) was formed on 3 July 1996 and its patron is Secretary-1 of the State Peace and Development Council General Khin Nyunt. Under MCCWA, the Myanmar National Working Committee for Women Affairs (MNCWA) was established on 7 October 1996. It was followed by the formation of State, Division, District and Township (grass-roots) levels working committees for women's affairs throughout the country. The working committee has identified six critical areas of concern that are considered to be the most relevant for advancement of Myanmar women. They are education, health, economy, violence against women, the girlchild, and culture. More recently, seventh critical area of concern, i.e. women and environment has been added to the national activities. Myanmar became a State Party to the Convenion on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women on 22 July 1997. [Source: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Myanmar]

Myanmar’s Women Forced to Be Chinese Brides

Some girls and young women are kidnaped and taken to China and sold as brides. David Eimer wrote in The Telegraph, “Aba was just 12-years-old when she left her hometown of Muse in Burma to visit Yunnan Province in China's far southwest. When she crossed the border, she was expecting to spend only a few hours away from home. But it would be three long years before Aba saw her family again. Like thousands of other young girls and women from Burma, she had been duped into coming to China so she could be sold into a forced marriage to one of the growing number of Chinese men who – because there are not enough girl babies born in China – cannot find wives any other way. [Source: David Eimer, The Telegraph, September 4, 2011]

“During her time in China, Aba endured routine beatings, while never being able to communicate with her family or even go outside on her own. Above all, she lived with the knowledge that she was destined to be married to the son of the family that had bought her – as if she was one of the pigs or chickens that ran around their farm. "I was sold for 20,000 Yuan (£1,880)," said Aba. "I was too young to get married when they bought me. It was later that they told me I had to get married to their son. I was lucky in a way. If I had been two or three years older when I was taken, I'd be married to him now."

“Most people wouldn't consider it fortunate to be kidnapped as a child and sold into virtual slavery. But Aba is one of the lucky ones. Not only did she escape a forced marriage, but she was rescued and was able to return home. For most of the women from Burma who are sold as unwilling brides in China, there are no happy endings. Instead, they face at best lives of misery and drudgery. At worst, they are driven to suicide. No one knows how many thousands of women are trafficked into China each year to be the wives of the men known as guang gun, or bare branches, the bachelors in rural areas who cannot find brides by conventional means. What is certain is that it is a number increasing all the time.

Min Naing, chief of the Special Anti-Human Trafficking Police Unit in Naypyidaw, told The Irrawaddy the root cause of the problem was the shortage of women in China, where decades of the one-child policy has meant there are millions more men than women in the country. Poor Burmese women living in border areas are taken in by promises of a good life, and well paid work, on the other side of the border. The official figures only include cases where Burmese authorities have been able to rescue the victim, and may only represent a fraction of the true number of Burmese women trafficked into China. [Source: Lawi Weng, the Irrawaddy, December 24, 2013]

Rapes by Myanmar Security Forces in Ethnic Areas

Francis Wade wrote in The Guardian: “At least 13 women, including teenagers, have been subjected to prolonged rape by Burmese security forces in a remote village in the western state of Arakan. Human rights groups have warned that the incident threatens to trigger further violence in a region where several waves of ethno-religious rioting since June last year have killed more than 1,000 people. The women all belong to the Muslim Rohingya minority, which has borne the brunt of fighting between Muslim and Buddhist communities. One victim, an 18-year-old girl who cannot be named for security reasons, described how a group of uniformed soldiers from Burma's border security unit, known locally as NaSaKa, entered her house in northern Maungdaw township shortly after midnight on 20 February. [Source: Francis Wade, The Guardian, February 26, 2013 ]

"They took us separately to different places and tortured and raped us," she said, referring also to her mother and younger sister, 15. The ordeal lasted until dawn, she said. "They came in and out of the house at least 15 times. They also beat my mother with a gun and dragged her outside to the road and beat her to the ground." According to the victim, 13 people in the village were assaulted. Chris Lewa, head of the Arakan Project, which has monitoring teams in Maungdaw township, said she had separately confirmed that at least 11 people were raped that night.

“The incident comes eight months after the rape of a 26-year-old Buddhist woman by three Rohingya men triggered fierce rioting across Arakan state , and a state of emergency remains in place. Arakanese and Rohingya communities have clashed a number of times. Animosity toward the Muslim group is widespread among Arakanese, many of whom consider them to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. "Sexual violence by Nasaka against Rohingya women has been documented for many years," says Matthew Smith, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, adding that prosecutions are rare for rapes committed by security forces.

“Khin Ohmar, founder of the Women's League of Burma, said that such ordeals terrorise the community. "I've heard of cases where rape survivors are kicked out of their village because the village head is so scared of retribution if they complain to the Burma army." She said that incidents like these happen "every time the army moves into remote areas", and that punishment is normally just transferral to another area "where rape continues but with different women". She thinks that the 20 February incident probably had its roots in "ethno-centric chauvinism and hatred" of the Rohingya. Following the attacks, villagers fled into nearby forests and across the border into Bangladesh, said Lewa. The victim told the Guardian that she and the other women had received treatment at a local clinic. The extent of their injuries is unclear, although one 19-year-old woman is believed to be in a critical condition.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2014

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