Could Women Be Banned from Buying Alcohol in Myanmar?

A beer station in Hpa-An, Myanmar. Image under Creative Commons by Flickr user Axelrd

A beer station in Hpa-An, Myanmar. Image licenced under Creative Commons by Flickr user Axelrd

Myanmar authorities are reportedly discussing the introduction of zones in Yangon and Mandalay — the country's largest cities — in which women would be banned from buying alcohol. Although 2009 World Health Organisation statistics suggest that Myanmar's alcohol consumption is the lowest in South-East Asia, with only 1.5 percent of women and 31 percent of men drinking, many claim that this is now changing. 

Blogger Aung Htin Kyaw has written about the trend: 

As Burma opens its doors to the outside world, there seems to be a loosening of social mores. For instance, on social media, I’ve noticed a surge of Burmese youths (often around my age or younger), both friends and relatives alike, casually drinking alcohol in social settings.

Beer advertising in Yangon, Myanmar. Image licenced under Creative Commons by Flickr user markku_a

Beer advertising in Yangon, Myanmar. Image licenced under Creative Commons by Flickr user markku_a

 Wagaung, commenting on Aung Htin Kyaw's post, agreed: 

The consumer society — especially the conspicuous consumption seen on Facebook — inevitably encourages it so that you begin to see Burmese women, young and not so young, with a glass of wine in their hand almost like a status symbol or a fashion statement.

To date, only one Burmese-language newspaper has reported the proposals to ban women from drinking in certain areas. Blogger MadyJune argues that the issue has not been presented fairly:

Even before this news came out, local media has been targeting female drinkers by using the picture of women sitting at beer stations on news articles about the rise of alcohol consumption in the country.

I’m not advocating for alcohol. In fact, I hate alcohol and I can’t stand the stench of it, but it’s not fair to limit women from drinking alcohol just because we are women. I believe we have the choice to choose whether we drink or not and nobody has the right to dictate [to] us.

According to the Women's League of Burma, men continue to dominate many aspects of Burmese society. The OECD's 2012 Social Institutions and Gender Index ranks gender equality in Myanmar as 44th out of 102 non-OECD countries — around the same level as Guinea-Bissau and Vietnam. 

Despite disagreeing with the potential ban, MadyJune believes that few women are likely to share her view:

I doubt the entire female population in Myanmar will be outraged with this unfair prohibition. In fact, some of them (or the majority of them) might even support it.

In another post, Aung Htin Kyaw explains that abstaining from alcohol is a fundamental part of Theravada Buddhists’ ethics, which holds that alcohol makes people more likely to behave in a way that endangers other living beings.

The motivations for imposing restrictions specifically on women are unclear, with most studies agreeing that men in Myanmar drink significantly more than women. Meanwhile, the fate of the proposed zones remains uncertain: although the Minister of Health stated that he was considering restrictions on alcohol consumption in July 2014, more recent reports suggest that many MPs do not see reforming alcohol laws as a priority. 

Discussions about drinking habits highlight concerns about the growing influence of Western culture in Myanmar's major cities. Even if the zones are not introduced in Yangon and Mandalay, the mere suggestion that there should be one rule for men and another for women shows that gender is becoming an increasingly contentious issue in Myanmar's changing society.


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