(Bangkok, March 25, 2014) – Burmese President U Thein Sein and National Assembly Speaker U Thura Shwe Mann should reject proposals for discriminatory marriage legislation that would strip Buddhist women of the right to freely choose whom they marry, Human Rights Watch said today. Burma’s donors should make it clear that passage of such a discriminatory law will put at risk continued increases in levels of aid and investment.
The discriminatory Emergency Provisions on Marriage Act for Burmese Buddhist Women is being considered by the government and National Assembly speaker after being submitted by a coalition of Buddhist monks and laypersons.
“It is shocking that Burma is considering enshrining blatant discrimination at the heart of Burmese family law,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This law would strip away from women their right to freely decide whom to marry, and would mark a major reversal for religious freedom and women’s rights in Burma.”
The proposed law, seen by Human Rights Watch, restricts Buddhist women to marrying only Buddhists. It requires individuals holding other religious beliefs to convert to Buddhism before marrying a Buddhist, and seek written parental consent of the bride. The proposed law also sets out a 10-year prison sentence and confiscation of properties of any non-Buddhist who seeks to marry a Buddhist in violation of the law.
On February 25, 2014, Thein Sein proposed in a letter to Shwe Mann that a marriage law and three other laws be drafted by the National Assembly to “preserve race and religion.” Two days later, on February 27, Shwe Mann replied by letter that the marriage law should be drafted by the Office of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and that when it was ready the National Assembly would consider it.
The proposed law would also require men intending to marry to obtain written approval in advance from the bride’s parents or legal guardian before a wedding can proceed, seriously jeopardizing women’s autonomous decision making and their freedom to start a family of their choice. Men would not need the approval of their parents to marry.
The proposed marriage law would violate fundamental rights to liberty and religious belief, and prohibitions against discrimination enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It would also violate article 16 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, to which Burma is a party, which specifies that governments have an obligation to eliminate discrimination against women in matters relating to marriage and should ensure that women and men have “the same right to enter into marriage.” The Burmese constitution, in article 348, states that, “The Union shall not discriminate any citizen of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, based on race, birth, religion, official position, status, culture, sex and wealth.”
“In ethnically and culturally diverse Burma, government leaders are playing with fire by even considering proposals that would further divide the country by restricting marriage on religious lines,” Adams said. “Donors and development partners who care about progress towards human rights and democracy in Burma should demand the government end its contemplation of this shocking law.”