Why does the beginning of the marriage matter? Women’s marital transitions, empowerment and abuse in Myanmar

By Stephanie Spaid MiedemaSan Shwe, and Aye Thiri Kyaw

Relationships are all about power.

Family sociologists find that broader social systems of gender inequality affect women’s power within marriage. That is, when women are not valued in society as equal to men, they are similarly not valued in marriage as equal to their husbands.* There are consequences to this inequality. When women hold relatively less power within their relationships, they are at higher risk of experiencing adversity, such as intimate partner violence. This effect is particularly pronounced in countries with high gender inequality. When we think about gender, power and violence, we tend to focus, not surprisingly, on relationships that already exist.  We measure indicators of women’s empowerment, such as decision-making or gendered attitudes, within existing marriages.

But relationships do not form out of thin air. Rather, we transaugust_miedema_myanmar-map_flatition into relationships.

When we marry, we shift from single individuals to a two-person unit within the social institution of marriage. So, what happens to power during that transition? What if the beginning of the relationship is a pivotal moment in which the distribution of power is coded onto the future marital relationship? How does this change our thinking around women’s empowerment in marriage and risk of experiencing partner violence?  The long-isolated country of Myanmar (formerly Burma), nestled between China, India and Thailand, served as a unique site to test these questions.

Gender equality in Myanmar? Gender relations between women and men in Myanmar have long been touted as equitable and advantageous to women. Until recently, this perception went largely unquestioned A nascent women’s rights movement is emerging in the wake of democratic reform, shedding light on the oppression of women throughout Myanmar history. A major piece of the gender scaffolding in Myanmar society is the ideology of hpon, an abstract concept that refers to men’s inborn and innate superiority over women derived from Myanmar Buddhist culture. Hpon and all things masculine are associated with good luck and positive spiritual forces. Thus, men are leaders, breadwinners and heads of households. Women and femininity are associated with ill omens. Myanmar society thus becomes physically, psychologically and spiritually stratified by the concept of hpon, signaling a comprehensive permeation of a patriarchal ideology.

Inequalities mold the marriage transition  To answer our questions of the importance of marital transitions and pre-conditioning of relationship power, we drew on qualitative data from two sites in Myanmar We found that many women entered into marriage because they faced insecurity or uncertainty in their life. Marriage is often viewed as the only option for a woman in Myanmar society. A woman gains status from marriage and is ‘protected’ by her husband. Women who were isolated from family – maybe because their families had migrated for work – faced social vulnerabilities that pushed them into marriage. Women who had little financial security tended to see marriage as a way to gain economic stability.

Other women eloped. In Myanmar, sex and pre-marital sexual relations are socially proscribed, especially for women. If a couple is suspected of having sex, they are considered married. In the context of double sexual standards for women and men and illegitimacy of sex outside of marriage, women’s options for leaving a sexual relationship were limited. If a woman’s sexual reputation was undermined, marriage with the man in question became the sole option.

Marital transitions and abuse When women’s marital transition was characterized by low agency, and less power and status relative to her husband, it pre-coded the power dynamics of the marriage. Women tended to have little control over financial resources, were more isolated from family and friends and were less able to decide when and how they wanted to have sex. In turn, these power dynamics inhibited women’s ability to avoid instances of partner abuse and framed this abuse. Women were belittled for their ‘lower’ status and forced to hand earnings over to their husbands; they were physically abused with impunity due to their social isolation; and many experienced marital rape because of men’s assumed sexual control over their wives.

In sum, women’s lives before marriage – their economic resources, their social networks and their sexual activities – shaped the nature of their shift into marriage. This pre-coded the gendered power distribution within their marriage, and inhibited their ability to avoid instances of partner abuse. While we focus on Myanmar women, we believe the implications hold universal relevance for how we think about gender, power and marriage. We encourage gender sociologists to consider women’s life conditions before marriage as predictors of power within marriage, and think about the implications for women’s health and well-being.

*Note: We focus here on opposite-sex partnerships, because our data captures only heterosexual marriages. More research needs to be conducted on empowerment, gender and sexuality within same-sex relationships, particularly in the Southeast Asian context.   

Stephanie Spaid Miedema is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at Emory University. Her research focuses on gender, sexuality and adverse life experiences, including intimate partner violence, among women and men across Asia-Pacific. Miedema serves as a technical research advisor to non-governmental organizations and United Nations agencies on gender equality, women’s empowerment and violence prevention in South and South-east Asia.   

San Shwe is the Senior Technical Consultant for Community Partners International, a non-profit health organization that delivers health care and education to remote areas of Myanmar. She is the former Director of Research for the Department of Medical Research, Ministry of Health. Her research focuses on elder care, contraception, abortion and sexual and reproductive health among youth populations. 

Aye Thiri Kyaw is a gender, women’s rights and inclusion researcher and programme analyst in Myanmar. She works with national non-governmental organizations and United Nations agencies to coordinate research and program development on maternal and child health, HIV, tuberculosis and malaria. Her research interests include gendered socio-cultural norms, reproductive health, gender-based violence and sex trafficking.

Their Gender & Society article “Social Inequalities, Empowerment, and Women’s Transitions into Abusive Marriages: A Case Study from Myanmar” can be found in the August 2016; 30 (4) issue here

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