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Burma’s Population Control Bill Threatens Maternal Health Progress

For Immediate Release

The parliament of Burma (officially known as the Union of Myanmar) recently passed a new “population control” bill that could represent a serious setback for the country’s maternal health advances if implemented in a coercive or discriminatory manner, according to Physicians for Human Rights (PHR).

The bill, which introduces the practice of “birth spacing” or a required interval for women between child births, is expected to be signed by President Thein Sein in the near future. Although birth spacing can decrease maternal and child morbidity and mortality, PHR is concerned that the bill does not explicitly prohibit biased or forceful implementation.

“Preventable maternal and infant deaths are devastating in many developing countries. Providing information on reproduction and the means to control the number and spacing of children is important, as long as fertility controls do not become a means to suppress the growth of marginalized groups,” said Widney Brown, PHR’s director of programs. “Without a clear non-coercion and non-discrimination clause, this bill should never have moved forward.”

While the Burmese government is taking action to reduce both mother and infant mortality rates, in keeping with the Millennium Development Goals set to expire in 2015, Burma’s democratic reform efforts have been fraught with violations of human rights, particularly for the country’s ethnic minorities. Of specific concern is the Muslim Rohingya population in Rakhine state, which has been subjected to restrictions on marriage, birth registration, and a host of other human rights violations.

“If this bill is signed and applied selectively in areas where religious or ethnic minorities are already subjected to persistent and pervasive discrimination, we face a heightened risk of grave human rights violations,” said Brown. “Elections alone do not a democracy make. Guaranteeing the rights and safety of all communities is vital to solidifying Burma’s democratic transition.”

Supporters of the birth spacing bill include Ma-Ba-Tha, a Buddhist nationalist group whose members include outspoken anti-Muslim monks such as U Wirathu, who advocates for protectionist policies. Such support suggests that the bill, if signed as is, could be used to persecute the Rohingya and other religious or ethnic minorities. Approximately 130,000 Rohingya have been forcibly displaced. Those that have not fled the country are living in squalid conditions, and are in desperate need of humanitarian aid, including medical care.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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