“Everytime I wake up as early as 3 am, I worry about the life of women who do not have the autonomy and who refuse in getting pregnant because they could not ask for health services due to religious restrictions,” Thein Thein Htay, Myanmar’s deputy minister of health, said.
She mentioned that providing reproductive health (RH) and family planning services to mothers would help them boost their sense of autonomy. Nowadays, the government has made available contraceptives in health centers, and is also implementing its birth spacing program.
She attended the 7th Asia-Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health Rights (APCRSHR) in Pasay City in mid-January, along with about 2,000 delegates from the said region.
Thein mentioned a policy in Myanmar about family size, which was widely rumored to limit to only two children per couple.
“It is clear that the said policy states that any couple can have any number of children they want,” she added.
The government of Myanmar is currently implementing its birth spacing program, “which is based on a health ground and not on the population ground,” she said.
She even suggested informally that the women of Myanmar could send their husbands as scholars to other countries in South East Asia and study about how reproductive health programs are applied in order to understand that there is no such thing as a limited family size.
During Myanmar’s period of socialist rule, the government, she said, encouraged the citizens to “produce more babies, so there is no limit.”
Religious acceptance road to RH success
Thein also said that the government’s efforts in promoting reproductive health became a success when religious groups, particularly the Muslims, started to accept such programs.
“At first the leaders did not even allow us to go to their houses,” she added. So when a meeting between her and a Muslim leader of a community was set, hundreds of people surrounded Thein’s team.
She said that she had to buy textbooks on family planning, which was written in Islamic language, with her own money due to lack of reference materials then. Her team went on explaining the basics of reproductive health to the residents.
“I explained to them that we are not against any religious ideology, but we are trying to prevent ill-health for our women,” she added.
“I want to make sure that the women will be empowered to know their own rights, to protect their health.”
Since then, the Health Ministry was able to run family planning clinics in all Muslim communities. She noted that the birth spacing program was even executed first in one of the said centers.
Such “revitalization” of programs and practices in the health sector in Myanmar, she said, started since political instability in the country started to lie low and the “visionary” leadership came in.
“This is really high time that we boost our collaboration with private sector and civic groups,” she said.
“We are trying to realize the inclusion of all constituency, all related ministries, and other organizations in the health intervention, and improving the coverage of health services.”
She admitted that there is an immense disproportion between Myanmar’s health staff and the country’s 60-million population, “so we are bringing organizations to sit with us together and help each other.”
Myanmar will host the 8th APCRSHR in 2016, with the Myanmar Maternal Child Welfare Association (MMWCA), a non-government group, spearheading the event.