The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) formed a Central Women’s Committee on Aug. 21 with a view to promoting women’s empowerment and capacity building. Dr. May Win Myint, chairwoman of the committee as well as a lawmaker representing Mayangone Township in the Lower House, recently talked to The Irrawaddy’s May Sitt Paing about the objectives and activities of the committee
What has the Central Committee done since it was formed two months ago?
Though the committee was formed [officially] on Aug. 21, it has been in existence for a long time before that. The committee was reformed with 11 members to engage in public works. Firstly, it went to camps for internally displaced persons [IDPs] in Myitkyina, Waingmaw, Mohnyin, and Mogaung townships in Kachin State. There, women and children are suffering the most. Some camps are well run and some aren’t. Camps supported by Christian associations were good, I mean, they helped IDPs get jobs. The [situation in] camps in Mohnyin was not so good.
What are the main concerns of the women and children in the IDP camps?
They are worried about two things. They have been in the camps for more than six years. They have left behind their farms, and they are worried they will lose them. But they dare not go back because of landmines. So, we told them that they could ask the authorities to get back their land. And as for the landmines, it has been on the mind of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for a long time. But it will take time. We also visited Buthidaung and Maungdaw in Rakhine State recently. Displaced persons have already gone back to their villages from camps. We plan to open a clinic in an ethnic village in Maungdaw.
I heard that the committee is planning to form women’s committees at the district, township, ward and village levels. Has there been any progress on that?
We’ll invite any female member healthy, willing and able to perform assigned duties, regardless of their educational background and age, to join the committee. We plan to form committees at the ward and village levels by January, township level by February, and district level by March. The Central Committee will appoint district and region/state level committees.
You are also a lawmaker in the Lower House. What legislation do you plan to submit to Parliament to promote women’s rights?
It is the responsibility of Parliament. A draft law to prevent violence against women has been in the making for over three years. But, it has not yet reached Parliament. The Upper House has a Women and Children Protection Committee, but the Lower House still does not have such a committee. So, we will form one as quickly as we can. And we are also amending the Child Law to further protect young girls.
We’ll also try to change certain laws like the Suppression of Prostitution Act in order to protect women. I heard that civil society organizations are discussing those laws and draft laws. But if they can do it quickly and forward them to Parliament, the bill committees will be able to start discussion soon and the process will be accelerated.
What do you think of the efforts being made under the new government to empower women?
Women lawmakers accounted for only 3.8 percent of lawmakers in the previous government. The percentage has increased under the new government, but it is still relatively low. According to CEDAW [Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women], women should have a 30 percent representation [in politics]. Our party doesn’t practice a quota system. But our policy favored woman candidates when they had the same abilities as their male counterparts [in selecting candidates for the 2015 election]. As a result, the NLD has the largest female representation among political parties in parliament.
Some women are too timid to take a lead role. What would you say about that?
Some women are afraid to do so, and some prefer men to take the lead role. So, we have to mobilize women to come out to the front. Only by doing this, will more women gradually come out to contest elections. Previously, there were no female administrators, but now there are 87. This is in the administrative branch. We also plan to rally women to obtain greater representation in the legislative branch. In Parliament, we will try to get women to take lead roles in the legislative, executive and judicial branches.
How would you respond to criticism that some women’s rights activists have been less active since they entered Parliament and that female representation is low in the Parliament?
It depends on the policies of the concerned parties. It is important that political parties have a large number of female candidates, and they have policies that favor female candidates. But at the same time, women have to build up their capacities. So, we will form women’s committees at the ward and village levels and provide capacity-building training. Only then, will women’s voices rise.
People are talking more about gender equality these days and there have been greater calls for legislation that promotes gender equality. What are your suggestions?
Much remains to be done in that regard. When it comes to gender equality, most activists talk in international terms. I won’t say they are wrong, but different countries have different situations. International norms call for a 30 percent participation rate for women [in politics]. But I prefer that women participate not because of a quota system but because of their ability. Women have to try to improve themselves. Women account for 51 percent of the total population of our country. We’ll empower women at the ward and village levels and help enhance their capacities. Hopefully, there will be more female lawmakers in 2020.
There are rigid attitudes and stereotypical views about women. Will it be easy to change certain things?
Such attitudes are entrenched more deeply in ethnic areas, and they may be less prevalent in lower Myanmar. Some people simply can’t shed such conservative attitudes. But as there are more ethnic parties, perhaps they will be able to help them get rid of those attitudes. We will carry out educational campaigns because there are cases in which women are sexually exploited because they have been misguided and such cases happen not only in rural areas but also in areas close to urban areas, for instance, the case in Mon State.