RANGOON — Burma is far from reaching gender parity in governance, but some political parties have begun adopting voluntary policies to empower women in Parliament.
Electoral quotas typically take one of three forms: reserved parliamentary seats, legal candidate quotas and political party quotas. The first two are enshrined either in a constitution or in legislation at the state or national level, while the latter is voluntary.
In Burma, affirmative action on gender inequality is not enshrined in state or national law, but some parties have independently adopted policies to begin to address the problem. At least two parties—the National Union Party (NUP) and the National Democratic Force (NDF)—are trying out some form of gender quotas while determining who will contest parliamentary seats in the upcoming 2015 general election.
Burma’s bicameral union legislature has the lowest proportion of female representation of any country in Southeast Asia. According to figures published by the Union Election Commission (UEC), only 28 of 479 elected seat-holders are women, less than 6 percent. That number accounts for 2.4 percent and 7 percent of the upper and lower houses, respectively. On the sub-national level, of 652 elected members of state and divisional parliaments, only 25 are women—less than 4 percent.
This means that less than 5 percent of all elected representatives nationwide are women, though these figures do not factor in appointed seat holders, who make up 25 percent of the Union Parliament and about 33 percent of state and regional legislatures, and are predominantly male.
During Burma’s most recent general election, held in 2010 and largely viewed as fraudulent, the NUP put forth 30 women of more than 800 candidates for state, division and Union Parliament seats, while the NDF ran 30 female candidates out of 163. Three of those women won seats.
The NLD did not participate in the 2010 polls, but by-elections in 2012 landed 43 of its members in Parliament. Twelve of them were women, making the NLD Burma’s most gender-balanced political party by leaps and bounds.
The USDP did not provide the number of women who contested in 2010, but data from the UEC indicates that only 2 percent of the party’s current union-level parliamentarians are women. The Rangoon divisional secretary for the USDP, Tha Win, told The Irrawaddy that the party is prioritizing gender equity.
“We estimate that one third of [USDP] candidates in Rangoon will be women,” he said, an optimistic forecast given the party’s record and the global tendency of gradual progress on closing gender gaps. Women currently occupy only about 21.9 percent of parliamentary seats worldwide, according to the Intra-Parliamentary Union, an international legislative forum.
That number—still far lower than the 30 percent benchmark set by many women’s rights advocates—was reached after a slow climb from 19.2 percent in early 2012, according to data from the United Nations. Women’s empowerment is a high priority for the United Nations, seeded third on its eight-point list of millennium development goals with discrete targets set for 2015.
A 2013 fact sheet marking progress toward those goals identifies women’s education and ascension into democratically elected governments as an imperative concern for development, stating that “affirmative action continues to be the key driver of progress for women.”
The fact sheet further said that in parliaments worldwide, “[w]here quotas have been legislated, women took 24 per cent of parliamentary seats… Where no quotas were used, women took just 12 per cent of seats, well below the global average.”
The report differentiated between those countries where mechanisms were mandated by law and those that used voluntary quota systems, as some of Burma’s parties have begun to do, concluding that voluntary quotas increased female leadership dramatically but still yielded 2 percent fewer winning candidates than legislated quotas.
The systems outlined by the NUP and the NDF are still nebulous, and unlikely to result in a dramatic shift in gender ratios. So far, the NUP has committed to “focus more on seeking women candidates,” according to spokesman Tun Yi. He said that the party aims to have at least one woman in consideration for candidacy in every constituency, which doesn’t guarantee that they will actually be nominated and eligible to contest a seat.
Nonetheless, Tun Yi told The Irrawaddy that, “nowadays, women’s capabilities are more acknowledged, but without increasing the number of women candidates we can’t get more [female] representation in Parliament.”
The NDF has set a goal of nominating at least 40 female candidates, 20 percent of its expected pool of 200 members seeking election, according to party Chairman Khin Maung Swe.
Women’s rights groups welcomed the initiative party leaders have taken toward increasing women’s candidacy, but argued that even if a goal of 20 percent were reached, it couldn’t possibly achieve markedly more representation because most of those candidates won’t win. Moreover, the country’s dominant party, the USDP, has made a prediction of inclusive elections but hasn’t backed it up with a party policy.
May Sabae Phyu, director of the Rangoon-based Gender Equality Network, has been an active advocate for measures by both political parties and lawmakers to increase the number of women who actually sit in seats of power, because, she said, women face “barriers” that would best be overcome by legislation designed by other women.
“Women’s participation at the decision-making level is still very low in this country,” she said. “We urge the government and political parties to implement a quota system… Twenty percent is less than what we want.”