Burma’s Ongoing Reproductive Health Disaster

What would your life be like if you were a young woman living in one of the longest-running conflicts in the world?  According to a new report from Ibis Reproductive Health, looking at the state of reproductive health of women living inside eastern Burma and those who’ve fled to Thailand, it’s likely that you would lack information about sex and family planning, be far more likely to become pregnant early, and have a high risk of being harmed from an unsafe abortion or dying in childbirth.

According to Dr. Angel Foster, DPhil, MD, of Ibis Reproductive Health and the University of Ottawa,

“Our report finds that millions of Burmese and ethnic minorities both inside Burma and along the Thai border have limited or no access to family planning, safe abortion, and general reproductive healthcare. The toll on women has been particularly severe. Negative effects include high numbers of unplanned pregnancies — and, consequently, high rates of maternal mortality and unsafe abortions. In fact, post-partum hemorrhage and unsafe abortion are the leading causes of maternal death and injury.”

Abortion is illegal in Burma unless a woman’s life is at risk and restricted in Thailand.  Lack of legal access combined with a lack of trained providers are fundamental causes of morbidity and mortality from abortion.

The absence of healthcare infrastructure inside eastern Burma, as well as for those Burmese living illegally as migrants in Thailand, has produced a kind of reproductive health “perfect storm.” Notes Foster, “Since denial of healthcare has been an official policy of the Burmese military in ethnic areas, women and men, especially adolescents, know little about family planning practices and voluntary sterilization.”

While international media has been praising the new Burmese government for recent efforts at openness, the government has not yet ended the decades-long civil wars in eastern Burma with ethnic minorities, or opened the area to non-governmental organizations that could provide healthcare.  Our hope is that the new Burmese government will someday make it possible for more organizations to provide aid and resources to the people in eastern Burma where outside groups are currently banned. The time has come to rebuild the health and human rights of the millions of men, women, and children affected by this conflict.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/anne412/ Anne Lieberman


    I have read Feministing for years and am always blown away by what the blog covers and how its writers cover it.

    From all of us at American Jewish World Service, thank you for writing this post about the dire situation of women’s reproductive health in Burma and sharing the Ibis report. AJWS supports partners both in Burma and on the borders to deliver these vital services to women who have been tortured and marginalized by violent conflict and a repressive regime for decades. Grassroots organizations like Adolescent Reproductive Health Zone (ARHZ) are working to provide local solutions to these issues ( for example, training displaced youth as peer educators and distributing reproductive health information in communities where talking about sex and sexuality is taboo). ARHZ’s work is even more crucial given the decades of government neglect and abuse in Burma.

    Recently, we wrote about the political change in Burma (http://blogs.ajws.org/blog/2012/01/24/what-happened-in-burma-and-why-it-matters-for-the-future/), echoing similar points you made about our hopes for political transition and increased support for civil society. It is essential for the Burmese military to end the brutal violence against ethnic communities and recognize their human rights.