RANGOON — A fundraising event to help finance the campaigns of women candidates contesting Burma’s Nov. 8 general election kicked off on Friday in Rangoon, featuring artworks, photographs and other goods for sale in support of increasing female participation in politics.
The 36 paintings and 24 photographs are being exhibited by a variety of artists and photographers who are eager to support female politicians whom they believe will represent women’s interests and serve as strong voices for their concerns.
Half a dozen women candidates, contesting seats in both the Union Parliament and state or regional legislatures, opened the five-day fundraiser on Friday by sharing their experiences on the campaign trail and in everyday life, with multiple speakers highlighting women’s safety as one area of concern this election year and, more broadly, in Burmese society.
Zucy, a photographer and one of the event’s organizers, told The Irrawaddy that proceeds from the event would support the campaigns of the most financially needy women candidates.
Susanna Hla Hla Soe, a women’s rights activist turned Upper House candidate for a seat comprising Rangoon’s Mingaladon and Insein townships, said safety issues were some of the biggest problems her team has faced since campaigning officially began on Sept. 8.
As a woman in Burmese society, Hla Hla Soe said another struggle was to dispel a widely held belief that female politicians were less capable than their male counterparts.
“We are easily being seen within that frame,” said Hla Hla Soe, who is running for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD).
Other women candidates representing ethnic minority parties shared similar stories of harassment faced during their campaigning.
Naw Mar Mar Cho, a Lower House candidate for the Karen People’s Party, said she would attempt to put the issue on the parliamentary agenda if elected.
“We will have to try to have legislation to ensure the safety of women, so that no woman needs to worry if they want to participate in politics,” said Mar Mar Cho, who is contesting a seat in Kyonpyaw Township, Irrawaddy Division.
“I have been verbally attacked by my rivals and I am viewed as promiscuous because I have to go with all the men around me during campaign trips to the villages, where we need to sleep,” Mar Mar Cho said.
She is contesting against the current Irrawaddy Division parliament’s speaker, who is the incumbent candidate for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). As a candidate from an ethnic party, she told The Irrawaddy that she has been attacked in different ways by the nation’s two biggest parties, the USDP and opposition NLD. She accused the former of destroying some of her campaign banners, while the latter spoke disparagingly of her candidacy potentially splitting the vote between opposition forces.
While Parliament this year passed legislation restricting women’s ability to marry, change faiths and have children under four so-called “race and religion protection laws,” there are no laws on harassment of women, and one lawmaker’s effort in 2013 to amend a law to provide stiffer penalties for child rapists was voted down.
The national and regional legislatures are overwhelmingly male-dominated: Only about 5 percent of sitting lawmakers are women, and while more woman are contesting the November poll than ever before, they comprise just 13 percent of the more than 6,000 candidates competing.
Kalyar Soe, a regional candidate for Rangoon’s Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township for the ethnic alliance Federal Union Party, express concern on Friday about civil servants in her constituency who were reluctant to engage with her for fear that it might risk their jobs.
“Please vote for the women who could shape our future,” Kalyar Soe said.
Nyo Nyo Thin, a prominent Rangoon regional lawmaker who is contesting a Lower House seat this year as an independent, said she would draft legislation to protect women from being harassed and include strong punitive provisions for violators.
“We need legislation to protect the women from harassment, our society is only now paying attention, and only to the prominent people. Ordinary women and the women candidates also need this kind of respect,” Nyo Nyo Thin said.
The fundraiser is being hosted by the Think Art Gallery on Nawaday Road in Rangoon’s Dagon Township and runs through Oct. 27.