Women flocking to theological education in Myanmar

April 10, 2003

Theology may not attract many women students in certain other Asian countries, but in Myanmar (Burma) women are flocking to theological colleges. Of the 4,000 students enrolled in theological colleges run by mainstream Protestant churches, more than 50 per cent today are women, said Peter Joseph, executive secretary of the Association of Theological Education in Myanmar.

Interest in these 27 theological institutions has risen, at least in part, in response to the government curbs imposed on secular colleges after pro-democracy student protests in 1988, observers say. The government relocated many secular colleges from cities to remote areas of the country and cut class hours back in an attempt to prevent students from uniting in further protests. In addition, students have been attracted to the new subjects many theological colleges have added to their curricula, said Anna May Say Pa, principal of the Baptist-run Myanmar Institute of Theology in Yangon. 'We include even computer education as well as improving English-language skills,' she notes.

Following the imposition of military rule in 1962, the government nationalized all educational institutions. Those run by the churches, however, are not subjected to the same level of government scrutiny as secular ones. Graduates of the theological colleges are considered 'better educated' than their counterparts from government-run secular colleges, Pa says, and are sought out as employees by the United Nations and other international agencies. But the colleges' traditional mission of theological education has 'not been compromised at all,' she insists, pointing to the keen competition for admission to theology programs. More than 200 students took an entrance exam this month for the 70 places available in one master's course in theology.

Approximately 6.5 per cent of Myanmar's 52 million people are Christians, and almost half of them are Baptists. Mary Dun, principal of Myanmar Institute of Christian Theology -- another Baptist seminary in Yangon -- says the high numbers of women students at theological colleges in recent years is 'preparing the way for a silent revolution.'

Congregations have been reluctant to take women as pastors, 'but this is sure to be challenged soon,' said Dun, one of the three women principals of the country's five major theological colleges. All five institutions include a course on gender and inclusive theology which, Dun hopes, will change the 'social bias against women's ordination in the long run.'