Guest Column

Gender Trumps Ability in Myanmar’s Patriarchal Society

By Nan Phyu Phyu Linn 29 November 2017

Less than two months before 2017 comes to and end, Myanmar is expecting a change in administration. This time, it will not be at the top level but on the ground, as new village and ward administrators will be elected with terms lasting until 2020.

According to Yaung Chi Thit, a community-based organization engaged in the promotion of human rights, while Myanmar has 16,743 ward and village administrators nationwide at present, only 87 of them are women—only about 0.5 percent.

The eligibility criteria laid out in Chapter 3 of the Ward and Village Tract Administration Law 2016 does not discriminate on the grounds of sex. Either men or women, 25 years of age or older are eligible to contest. But even for qualified and capable women, a glass ceiling still exists.

This is the case for a woman administrator in Karenni State.

She served as the administrator of her village for years on behalf of her busy husband who was officially elected the administrator. The village likes her as their upstanding and outspoken administrator but when she says she wants to contest the upcoming election to take the position herself, villagers shake their heads.

“My villagers don’t want people to think that they had to elect me, a woman, because no man in the village was capable of doing the administrator’s job. So they asked me to register with my husband’s name [for the village administrator election]. But I want to serve as an administrator under my name,” said the woman.

This case is a prime example of gender taking precedence over ability in Myanmar’s patriarchal society.

The eligibility criteria further requires that the administrator be respected by society, serve with dignity and possess the ability to perform the assigned duties with willingness and enthusiasm to the benefit of the community and the Union.

Ability, willingness and enthusiasm are key attributes of an administrator. But even women who possess these attributes in spades are overlooked in a male-dominated society.

Daw Mon Mon Aung, the administrator of Ward (E) in Yangon’s North Okkalapa Township, is one of a few women whose ability is appreciated by her community. But still she is confronted with challenges because of her gender.

“Though the job is about performing the assigned duties well, people support male administrators and say they are fit for the job while they doubt women’s ability,” she said.

“So, I have had to try to harder to win their trust and of course, there are more challenges,” she added.

This reminds the author of what a woman administrator said at an event titled “May Toh Kabar” [Women’s World] to raise public awareness about women’s rights in Yangon some two years ago. “The job is two times harder for women than men. There are people who are watching whether we do the job well, and we have to prove that we can. At the same time, we have to do household chores so that the family members do not get annoyed with us,” she said.

While people would praise a male administrator who neglected his family in the name of community service, they expect female administrators to handle community work and household chores at the same time. As the job involves going out with men at night for checks on unlawful activities, female administrators also have to preserve their modesty to prevent their morals being questioned by others, the administrator continued.

“Only when there is community and family that support and understand us, will we be able to truly serve the public interest,” she said.

When it comes to serving the interests of the community and the country, there is a dire need for Myanmar to distinguish between actual inability and a stereotypical perception of women’s inability.

In a 2016 forum on women, peace and security in Karenni State, discussions included increasing the participation of women in politics. It was not until 2012 that women’s forums could be held across the country, in part because it was difficult to get permission from authorities and also because of people’s attitudes toward women’s issues.

While these forums used to be difficult to organize, today they demand greater female participation in politics and the peace process.

Women’s voices are their strength, and it is important that these voices be heard by concerned authorities, in particular those in the legislative and executives branches. Otherwise, gender equality will remain an illusion.

In Karenni State, people often give rice to local administrators as a gesture of gratitude for their service. But this token is not granted to female administrators, locals say.

“People have yet to learn to respect female administrators. Much remains to be done in this regard,” said a local.

Generally, the law allows both sexes to stand for ward and village administrator elections, but there are unwritten rules and norms that bar women.

There is a lot to be done to empower women, change the laws, and most importantly, change people’s attitudes toward women.

Women’s forums seek to increase women’s participation in politics, as well as guarantee their safety. The safety of women in conflict zones is a pressing issue, which has led to an increase in female administrators in Karen State, where serious clashes have occurred throughout decades.

“Following armed conflicts and clashes, women filled administrator posts. Not because women were prioritized, but because male administrators were subject to investigation by both sides [Tatmadaw and non-state armed groups]. Male administrators were often threatened and tortured. But, they were less likely to do the same to female administrators,” said a participant at a women’s forum in Karenni State in 2016.

“We had to take on the role of administrator in order to stabilize the community. And we also have to give appropriate answers to questions from both armed sides. We were always worried about the prospect of being detained,” said a female administrator from Karen State.

The ward and village tract administration law also requires that an administrator not be a member of an armed organization or in communication with an unlawful association.

So, there is a likelihood that there will be more female administrators in conflict areas.

Women have called for a 30 percent quota in parliament and government, but there must be greater efforts to link international conventions on women’s rights with the country’s strategies in order that that vision can become a reality.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which Myanmar ratified in 1997, mandates gender equality. Women’s rights organizations and activists in cooperation with the government and parliament are obliged to link CEDAW and the National Strategic Plan for Advancement of Women (2013-22) in order that Myanmar’s glass ceiling is shattered for the benefit of women as well as the country.

Nan Phyu Phyu Linn is a women’s rights activist.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.