RANGOON — While much attention in recent days has focused on the mammoth electoral gains of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), advocates of women’s participation in politics also have something to smile about, with Burma next year set to see a near tripling of female representation across the country’s legislative chambers.
Among those bringing their voices to dramatically reconstituted 2016 parliaments currently dominated by men are women who have long-devoted efforts to gender equality, peace and justice. Many of these same activists have served lengthy prison terms for their outspoken advocacy under Burma’s former military regime, which rarely brooked dissent.
“We [female MPs-elect] will make it a different Parliament from that which we have seen so far. We will create a more active and lively Parliament,” said Htoot May, an ethnic Arakanese woman who was elected on Nov. 8 to the Upper House seat covering Arakan State’s Ann and Ramree townships.
Htoot May added that greater female representation in legislatures, where women currently hold less than 5 percent of seats, would lead to more debate on the everyday challenges faced by the public at large, as well as issues more specific to her gender, such as the prevention of violence against women and sexual assault.
The 36-year-old MP-elect, who was one of 18 pioneering leaders from Burma who last year joined the Liberty and Leadership Forum organized by the George W. Bush Institute, said she planned to focus on promoting equality for her fellow ethnic minorities, as well as education and employment rights.
According to figures from the Union Election Commission (UEC), 150 women were elected this month among the 791 who stood for office nationwide: 44 in the Union Parliament’s Lower House, 23 in the Upper House and 83 in regional legislatures, putting female representation at about 13 percent—an 8 percentage point increase, or an almost a threefold rise compared with the current crop of women lawmakers, which according to UEC data numbered 53 in 2014.
Still, while the success rate of female candidates was roughly in line with the ratio of male to female candidates contesting the polls, Burma in 2016 will remain well shy of the 30 percent representation for women that is widely cited as the figure to strive for globally.
Nyo Nyo Thin, one of a handful of outspoken sitting lawmakers in Burma, said that though the percentage was still lower than neighboring countries, the nation’s education and health sectors stood to benefit from the increased presence of female voices, as would efforts to combat rampant corruption in government.
“It is a good sign. More women will now enter the parliament. I would like to ask them to prove that women are not inferior to men,” said Nyo Nyo Thin, herself a parliamentary hopeful whose independent candidacy was among thousands of unsuccessful bids for elected office in a vote that saw the NLD largely steamroll the competition.
The NLD fielded about 150 female candidates across the 1,130 races that the party contested, with 134 of those women winning seats, an impressive 89 percent success rate. The Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) clocked in a distant second in terms of parties’ female candidates, with seven women claiming victory. The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which was trounced at the polls, will send three women to Parliament next year, and Htoot May will be joined by Khin Saw Wai in representing women for the Arakan National Party (ANP).
“Now I have more of a chance to work for women’s rights,” said Kyi Pyar, who won a Rangoon divisional parliamentary seat representing the NLD. “I have connections with women’s rights groups like Rainfall and Triangle, and so I can work together with them, listening to their voices on women’s issues. I can then represent their voices in Parliament.”
Among regional legislatures, Rangoon Division will see the greatest number of women take seats next year, with 28 of its 92 elected seats going to women.
Kyi Pyar said more female voices involved in the legislative process would help adjust prevailing attitudes that place women at the back of the room on matters of politics and policy.
“In my view, women can work more with the details than men. There is a traditional belief that men are more intellectual, but indeed, women have better concentration. To speak frankly, our party is led by a woman, and me, I am a secretary for our township party [chapter] and I can do things with the details and can see and do what others don’t see,” she said.
NLD chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi won re-election to her Lower House seat in Rangoon Division’s Kawhmu Township, where she was elected in a 2012 by-election.
Prominent activist Zin Mar Aung and award-winning human rights defender Ma Thandar both won Lower House seats for the NLD representing Rangoon Division’s Yankin Township and Irrawaddy Division’s Einme Township, respectively. Another well-known voice for women’s empowerment and child protection, Susanna Hla Hla Soe, and Shwe Shwe Sein Latt, a founder and director of Phan Tee Ein (Burmese for Creative House), both won Upper House seats for the NLD.
Activist Ma Htar Htar from Akhaya, an advocacy group that encouraged women to vote for female candidates leading up to the Nov. 8 poll, said she believed the new crop of female legislators would also help highlight issues faced by conflict-affected populations in ethnic areas traumatized by decades of civil war.
“Women desire peace more because it is them and their children who are most affected by the fighting and they are excellent in negotiation. So I believe there will be significant advances in peace and security,” she said.