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Myanmar’s Changing Political Landscape: An Opportunity for Quality Reproductive Health Care

Analysis Meher Rehman

The political landscape in Myanmar is undergoing a big change. From 1962 to 2011, Myanmar existed under an oppressive military regime that severely restricted civil liberties and suppressed any form of dissent in the country. Beginning in 2010, the military government changed to a quasi-civilian government and Myanmar began a gradual liberalization process, resulting in the first democratically held elections in 2015. The swearing-in of a new president in late March has raised hopes and expectations further, as well as the recent announcement that Myanmar is the newest country to become part of USAID’s initiative to end preventable child and maternal deaths. Together with other positive developments discussed ahead, this presents a favorable political environment to push for health reforms and create a foundation to advance quality and rights issues in reproductive health.

Shifting Ideologies

The military regime in Myanmar considered population growth to be an asset to the country’s development. This pronatalist ideology shaped Myanmar’s National Population Policy in 1992 which subsequently led to the term “family planning” being replaced by “birth-spacing” in the policy text. What seemed like a change in semantics was a clear indication that family planning was not the ruling government’s priority and was restricted to a focus on birth-spacing for married couples—while increasing the size of families.

Family planning efforts were largely neglected until 2013, when Myanmar unveiled its FP2020 commitment at the International Conference on Family Planning in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. With this public announcement and pledge focusing on financial, programmatic and service delivery commitments, the government proved that it recognized the pivotal role of family planning as a “fundamental right for every woman and community”. The constitution of an active Family Planning Technical Working Group by the Government to implement the FP2020 commitments and coordinate the National Strategic Plan on Reproductive Health (2014 – 2018), was a step further in solidifying the Government’s political commitment to the reproductive health agenda.

New Ground for SRHR Advocacy

In 2015, the Costed Implementation Plan for FP2020 was prepared and released. In the same year, the first-ever Family Planning Conference was organized in Shan State as a collaborative effort by Pathfinder International, the Ministry of Health, UNFPA, and Myanmar Partners in Policy and Research (MPPR) to bolster the FP2020 movement at the sub-national level. The conference was also an opportunity to deliberate on a range of challenges and best practices such as availability of commodities, quality health human resources, and quality supervision and monitoring. Earlier this year, the government organized a consultative planning meeting with civil society to discuss the implementation of Myanmar’s FP2020 goals – another important indication that a changing landscape that could accelerate work on quality reproductive health further.

In our technical assistance trip to Myanmar this year as part of our QUEST project, the emerging change in the political landscape was very palpable. We repeatedly heard how the government was opening up to engage with an otherwise suppressed civil society around developmental issues, including health and population. Our interactions highlighted that the Ministry of Health was actively seeking specific technical assistance from international organizations like Pathfinder International, JSI, PSI and JHPIEGO to strengthen health systems at various levels, particularly those around reproductive health.

Another emergent theme was the need for increased reproductive health advocacy by civil society. It was evident that the opening up of the government and new collaboration with civil society makes this an opportune time to push for health system reforms and also bolster the narrative around quality family planning and reproductive health in Myanmar.

The government of Myanmar is making a concerted effort to bring in fresh perspectives from civil society, as well as to incorporate lessons learned from other recent democracies. Hopefully, one such lesson will be the importance of building local capacities of civil society on research and advocacy and creating platforms such as networks and coalitions that help to advance quality. Other important areas of learning identified were building the capacity of Myanmar’s civil society on understanding quality and rights in FP/RH, evidence-based advocacy, identifying and cultivating champions, messaging key asks, and measuring progress.

The encouraging developments in Myanmar also coincide with the next phase in QUEST that will link the ongoing assessments on quality and rights by PAI and our partner MPPR to clear advocacy asks and opportunities for strengthening systems supporting the family planning and reproductive health agenda in Myanmar. Together, this presents an ideal moment for bringing the narrative on quality family planning and reproductive health to the center while strengthening in-country voices to rally around this focus. However, it is critical that the government continues to gainfully engage with the civil society and the international community to fulfill its commitment to women and girls to have the right to high-quality reproductive health care in Myanmar.

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