Dateline Irrawaddy: How Can Women Play a Greater Role in Burma?

By The Irrawaddy 21 May 2016

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll compare the roles of women under the previous quasi-civilian government and current elected government, and discuss their potential role in decision-making on important issues such as the shaping of political, economic and social policies. Ma Khin Ma Ma Myo, a director with the Myanmar Institute of Gender Studies, and Ma May Sabe Phyu, a director with the Gender Equality Network, will join me for a discussion. I’m The Irrawaddy’s English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

How do you compare the roles of women in the time of the U Thein Sein government and under the new government, the government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, in terms of policy-making and decision-making? Do you see greater potential for the role of women now compared to the past, or if not, do you think it will get better in the future?

Khin Ma Ma Myo: In terms of women’s participation, there were a few female ministers in the previous government. However, in the new government, there is only one woman who is a minister.

KZM: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the foreign affairs minister.

KMMM: Yes, that’s right. But then, we can’t jump to the conclusion that the role of women is very limited just because of the proportion of representation. It is due to the fact that the new government has merged or reduced the number of ministries. And not every ministry has yet appointed deputy ministers. Though women’s participation in the cabinet is low, we can’t conclude that their role is small. If the proportion of women at the rank of director and above in each department is counted, and if a gender policy is put in place, then women will have a greater role to play.

KZM: Ma May Sabe Phyu, you are from the Gender Equality Network. Besides the ‘quantity’ factor, what other factors should be taken into account in assessing gender equality?

May Sabe Phyu: In assessing [gender] equality, we focus on both quantity and quality. By quality I mean outcomes. We care more about outcomes than quantity. As Ma Khin Ma Ma Myo has said, Auntie Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the lone woman in the Union government. But then, at the division and state level, there are two women who are chief ministers. And overall, the number of female lawmakers in the Parliament has doubled now compared to the time of the previous government.

KZM: Previously, it was?

MSP: It has increased from 4.6 percent to 10.3 percent now. So it has doubled. It is fair to say that it is a sign of progress. But then we also need to consider the point of quality. We need to see to what extent the voices of those women in the Parliament and central, division and state governments are heard and reflected in legislation and government policies.

KZM: Ma Khin Ma Ma Myo, everyone believes that the new elected government, compared to previous military governments and the quasi-civilian government, has a genuine desire to establish democracy. Can we say the new government is making reforms from a gender perspective? Can we say it has a gender policy?

KMMM: In my view, [the new government] has just started developing policies. For example, the Social Welfare Ministry has started to design a national youth policy in cooperation with UNFPA [United Nations Population Fund]. Therefore, we expect a national gender policy will be developed soon. That is likely because youth and gender are cross-cutting issues. So the two tend to come one after another.

KZM: Some organizations engaging in women’s issues or gender equality have criticized Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her government for not favoring women despite the fact that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself is a woman. As far as I understand, she cares more about qualifications. She has called for giving more opportunities to women, if they are equally qualified with men. But qualifications seem to be the most important to her. Why have those organizations made such criticisms? Do you see the criticisms as valid?

MSP: When it comes to gender equality, the common assumption is that everyone, either man or woman, can be a leader or hold decision-making positions if they have same qualifications. But from the point of view of women’s rights and gender equality, the assumption that everyone can be a leader if he/she has the right qualities is a conventional assumption that does not consider gender sensitivities.

In society, men and women have traditionally had different roles and there is both explicit discrimination and subtle discrimination on the grounds of gender. To be frank, our country is a striking example. Is every capable woman accepted by the people as a leader in society? It is a question worth asking. Here, we need to change the conventional assumption of gender equality that both man and woman will be able to take the leading role if they have same qualifications. Taking the ‘glass ceiling’ and social and cultural prejudices against women into consideration, [the new government] should adopt laws and policies that can create an environment that allows greater participation of women. Only then, those policies can be said to have been formulated with gender in mind.

KZM: Another thing is about very controversial legislation: The U Thein Sein government and Parliament adopted ‘race and religion protection laws’ because of ultra-nationalist and religious groups. They justified this by saying those laws were intended for the protection of Burmese [Buddhist] women. But most women believe that these laws violate the fundamental and natural rights of women. Ma Khin Ma Ma Myo, how should the new government and lawmakers should handle these laws now?

KMMM: The reason issues become controversial largely depends on how those issues are approached. In taking an approach, some adopt a protection strategy—that is, to protect an individual or a group of people. And others take an empowerment approach—that is, to educate an individual or a group and allow them to make choices on their own. The race and religion protection law was adopted in protection style. It seems that [some people] might have some concerns and therefore took the protection approach. In international societies, there are also protection approaches in practice, for example the phrase ‘ladies first’ and the protection of women and children in times of war. Rather than trying to protect certain groups, I think empowerment is much better for women.

KZM: Ma May Sabe Phyu, what is your view of these laws?

MSP: There may be controversial, sensitive issues in every country. But as a voter, my view is as simple as can be: Because people have voted [for a party] with expectations that the government would fully respect and realize democratic values and human rights, [the government] should align its laws and policies to be in accordance with those values.

KZM: There are around 51 million people in our country and women make up more than half of the national population. So women represent a huge force in the reform and democratization process of our country. How can the mentality of men and women be changed so that women can play a greater part and more leading role in the decision-making process of social, economic and political issues?

KMMM: The first thing women should do is have self-confidence. They need to boost their confidence so that they can lead and make decisions and address national issues the way men do. The second thing is to find effective ways to demand a greater role. Women should now think about how to do advocacy to gain support from men. Then, they should take a sensible, strategic approach, convincing the men to support them. Then, we women will be able to shape the country together with men like other countries in the world, I hope.

KZM: Ma Khin Ma Ma Myo, you have talked about what is needed for women. Here I think institutions and government are important. What collaborative measures do you think should be taken to realize those goals in a short time?

MSP: We already have powerful women’s campaigns, networks and organizations that could make sure there is greater gender equality in our country. To make sure there are laws and policies that can guarantee gender equality, the government should cooperate with women’s rights activists.

KZM: Ma Khin Ma Ma Myo, Ma May Sabe Phyu, thank you for your contribution.