Back With a Mission: Empowering Women in Burma

By Nyein Nyein 28 April 2015

RANGOON — As elections near and Burma’s leading lady, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, is still categorically barred from the country’s highest office, more and more political onlookers are raising the question of what role women will play in designing future policy.

Lway Aye Nang has some ideas, not just about how to increase women’s participation in guiding the country through its transition to democracy, but about how to make that participation both lasting and meaningful.

As head of the Women Leadership Program (WLP), a project of the NGO Educational Initiatives, which she helped to found in 2008, Lway Aye Nang travels to some of Burma’s most remote areas to scout for promising political talent. WLP offers training and support for ambitious young women seeking nominations in their constituencies, regardless of party affiliation.

Lway Aye Nang is ethnic Palaung, also known as Ta’ang, a minority that mostly lives in northern Shan State, eastern Burma. During her years living in exile in northern Thailand, she found herself increasingly involved in a growing movement to promote gender equality in Burma and among exile communities.

When she was finally able to return to her home country in 2013, her mission was clear. Burma’s political reforms and opening seemed to be a golden opportunity for women to take the reins and have a say in their country’s future. Lway Aye Nang was determined to help prepare the nation’s women for power in any way she could.

“We train women to be productive leaders,” she told The Irrawaddy during a recent interview, “but we have found a lot of challenges.” Many of the communities she works in are so culturally unexposed to the idea of women’s empowerment that the mere phrase elicits fear and confusion. Lway Aye Nang said she had experienced such responses in several parts of the country; in Sagaing and Irrawaddy divisions, and Karenni and Chin states.

She attributed this apprehension to deep-seated cultural views, whereby women simply are not seen as critical thinkers or decision-makers.

“Women are not allowed to question,” she said, a problem prevalent in most parts of the country, regardless of ethnicity or religion. While new initiatives have sprung up in some areas to empower women and introduce the idea of women’s leadership, Lway Aye Nang said she has observed weaknesses in implementation whereby “outside forces” have encouraged inclusion but done little to support actual equality. The few women who are able to enter politics are often unable to advance within their parties, still limited by men sitting at the top.

Quotas could offer a partial solution, she said, but they need to be addressed in the form of written policy by individual political parties.

“So far, we don’t have those policies,” she said.

Amid increased pressure to at least appear to be moving toward a more egalitarian politics, some political parties in Burma have begun to adopt gender policies. Thus far, however, proposals are geared toward increasing candidacy, not ensuring that positions are actually assumed by women. Furthermore, none of the proposed policies have been written into party charters, and there is no state or national legislation to address the issue.

And the lack of women leaders is an issue in Burma, where only about five percent of union lawmakers are women and sub-national governance figures are even worse, leaving Burma with the lowest proportion of elected women in the entire region. To put that into a less-than-comforting context, only about 22 percent of lawmakers worldwide are women.

Addressing gender disparity is complicated, she said, and ultimately both men and women will need to make a concerted effort to balance things out. While quotas can help to ensure that women are welcome and protected in the political sphere, those elected need to be as prepared and enthusiastic about their work as the men they sit beside.

“Women’s knowledge varies depending on their geographical location,” she observed, pointing out that for someone in her line of work, it is necessary to go to remote places and seek out those who show promise, skill and interest, but may not have the means to compete for the highest levels of authority.

But Lway Aye Nang has no personal ambition to inter parliamentary politics; for now she is content to prepare the next generation of women leaders.

“So far, I feel the need for dissemination of knowledge is far more important that being in the Parliament,” she said.