Are Gender Stereotypes to Blame for Low Levels of Political Participation by Women in Myanmar?

By The Irrawaddy 17 October 2020

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss why women’s representation is low in Myanmar’s politics, the importance of the role of female voters and the fact that the Union Election Commission has no female members. Ma Yee Mon Oo and Ko Myo Khaing Htoo, who are members of the steering committee of the Gender Equality Network, join me to discuss this. I’m The Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.

In the course of Myanmar’s political history, from the struggle for independence to the current democratic transition, women have contributed their fair share, shoulder-to-shoulder with men. But in terms of percentages, women’s participation in politics is much lower than that of their male counterparts. Some women’s organizations have therefore demanded that 30 percent of the seats in Parliament be reserved for women. My first questions are: Why is women’s participation in Myanmar politics low and what barriers do women face when it comes to becoming involved?

Yi Mon Oo: There have been historical events during which women worked competently, shoulder-to-shoulder with men. Women also took leadership positions. However, gender stereotyping is entrenched in our society. Because of that, leadership has often been narrowly defined and social norms have been established based on those stereotypes. This has led to the notion that women are followers, rather than leaders. Despite the fact that there are many women of high caliber, there are considerable barriers and challenges when it comes to participation in politics and taking leadership positions. This fact has been proven by a number of studies and surveys.

Because of the social norms entrenched in our society, women are traditionally supposed to be homemakers. That notion greatly deters women from advancing to leadership roles. Only when we establish a culture based upon sharing responsibilities among family members will women be in a better position to participate in politics and assume leadership roles.

At the same time, gender-based violence in Myanmar deters women from taking a more active part in politics and leadership. The general attitude is that women should have nothing to do with politics. There have been incidents of harassment and hate speech targeted at women [candidates] not only on social media but also in the real world. According to some surveys, women [candidates] have faced harassment during the campaign period. These threats pose unique challenges to women’s participation.

Again, for anyone attempting to reach a position of leadership, the support of the family and community is crucial. But because of entrenched social norms in our country, such as stereotyping of women as housewives, women do not receive the support they need and they have to work harder than men in order to be able to take on leadership roles. Such challenges and barriers deter women from participating in politics.

YN: The proportion of women lawmakers [elected to] the national legislature in 2010 was just 6 percent. It increased to around 13 percent [in the election] in 2015. Many parties have fielded female candidates, both new faces and familiar faces, for the 2020 election. The number of female candidates is higher than in previous elections. As a result, some expect that the proportion of women will increase to 20 to 25 percent in Parliament under the next government. My view is that for women to be elected to Parliament, female voters need to vote for women candidates. How important a role do female voters play in this?

Myo Khaing Htoo: The total number of women candidates for the Union Parliament and region and state parliaments accounts for 16 percent of all candidates in the November election. The number has increased compared to previous elections. This is good. To answer your question, I do think female voters play an important role for women candidates seeking election to Parliament. While male voters tend to vote for male candidates because of gender identity, women—due to the misguided belief that they should follow men—also tend to vote for male candidates.

But for the most part, it is only women lawmakers who raise women’s issues in Parliament and ask for consideration of women when making decisions about the country’s affairs. That’s because only women understand women’s issues, problems and concerns. Men can’t understand women’s problems as well as women do. That is why it is important that there is a considerable number of women lawmakers in the Parliament to assure that the rights and problems of women can be taken into consideration when making decisions about the country’s affairs. Female voters need to vote for women candidates so that their voices will be heard. Women’s rights will advance as a result, I assume.

YN: Ma Yee Mon Oo, as a female voter, what would you like to say to other female voters?

YMO: For women to be elected to Parliament, first of all, the most important thing is that they have an opportunity to run as candidates in the election. And that depends largely on the policies of individual political parties. We need to see to what extent our political parties provide opportunities for female candidates. According to data we have gathered, women candidates account for a maximum of 20 percent of the total candidates running in November. It’s now the voters’ responsibility to cast votes for them.

Parliament makes decisions on development plans, such as the Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan, and it establishes the annual budget and passes laws. It’s important that the lawmakers who discuss those issues in Parliament represent everyone. In our country, women account for more that 50 percent of the population. But in the current Parliament, women’s representation is less than 12 percent. So, how can the policies, projects and laws passed by the Parliament adequately serve women who account for over 50 percent of the population? Women lawmakers now have little say in the decision-making process.

My view is that the Parliament should have a certain percentage of women lawmakers that is proportional to the country’s female population. Female lawmakers should at least account for 30 percent of total lawmakers. We also need to support female candidates to represent our voices and priorities in passing laws and budgets. When meetings were held in wards about voting and elections in the past, only men attended because they were seen as the breadwinners. Because of this tradition, women have a tendency to consult with their male family members, for example a husband or father, about who to vote for, rather than making the decision by themselves. Now they have to decide by themselves and they need to choose those who can represent them best and make their voices heard.

YN: The UEC is responsible for conducting a successful election. Will the UEC, which does not have a female member, be able to promote women’s participation in the electoral process, Ma Yee Mon Oo?

YMO: One of the problems in Myanmar is that while women are allowed to participate in politics, they are not in leadership and decision-making positions. You may notice that polling station officers are women. But women are barely allowed to participate in designing policies and making decisions. The UEC situation underscores the fact that there are still a lot of barriers for meaningful participation on the part of women. There is not a single woman member in the national-level electoral body. In region and state election sub-commissions, women’s participation is low. At the lower level, women are assigned to work at polling stations in townships. This reflects the large degree of discrimination against women that remains in Myanmar.

Future election commissions should include female members in decision-making positions who represent women and understand their problems and concerns. To be able to adopt electoral policies that can represent all, we will need a commission with equal representation of men and women, rather than a commission without a single female member.

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