Guest Column

Myanmar Still Fails to Bring More Women into Politics

By Aye Lei Tun 14 October 2020

Women account for 51 percent of Myanmar’s population and 19 million out of 37 million eligible voters at the 2020 general election.

In the previous election in 2015, 13 percent of the 6,200 candidates were female and in 2020 the rate has increased to just 15.6 percent of over 7,000 candidates.

The 1995 World Conference in Beijing encouraged countries to promote women’s political participation and today women hold 24 percent of the world’s parliamentary seats. In Myanmar, women hold about 10 percent of Union, state and regional seats.

This is the highest rate since women could take part in elections but is still the second-lowest in Asean, compared to the Philippines with 28 percent and Laos at 28 percent.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union reported on Sept. 25 that Myanmar ranked 167 out of 191 countries for female representation in the national lower house.

After the 2015 election, the Department of Social Welfare at the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement promoted women’s political participation. As a result, “women’s involvement in decision-making roles and leadership” has been one of the core strategies in the National Strategic Plan for Advancement of Women (2013-22).

Likewise, supporting women and having more female candidates has also been an element of the Strategic Plan 2019-22 of the Union Election Commission (UEC). Based on this plan, the UEC held a webinar, “Election and promotion of women’s role and participation”, in June to discuss countering disinformation and hate speech against women candidates and supporting female leaders.

However, the proportion of female candidates in 2020 has not significantly increased since 2015, which means the success of those strategic plans remains in question.

A report, “Gender and Political Participation in Myanmar”, published by the Enlightened Myanmar Research Foundation this month indicated that the National League for Democracy has 19 percent female candidates, the Union Solidarity and Development Party has 10 percent and Pa-O National Organisation has 14 percent. The Shan Nationalities League for Democracy has 29 percent female candidates.

Myanmar is still way off reaching the 30 percent of candidates that has been advocated by the women’s rights organizations and activists.

Political parties’ key positions are largely taken by men. The foundation’s three-year research project on women and politics said seven out of the nine political parties studied had less than 20 percent female representation in key positions such as chair, vice-chair or secretary on their central executive and township committees. Even in the candidate selection committees, female representation was low.

It is also rare to see parties positively intervening to advance women in selecting party policies.

In Parliament, only 1 percent of military-appointed parliamentarians are women. The 25 percent of reserved seats for the military also shrinks the spaces available for women candidates.

Women face barriers in their own lives that hinder participation in public life. The Enlightened Myanmar Research Foundation report said women suffer from a lack of confidence and ambition to become parliamentarians, the difficulties of traveling and especially staying overnight in remote areas and juggling duel family and community roles.

COVID-19, technological illiteracy and the lack of online campaigning skills have also become significant obstacles to female political participation. Rural women often lack online access as men regularly control the household’s mobile phones.

In terms of community attitudes, cultural norms and preference for male leadership can be the biggest challenge for women looking to enter politics. According to the foundation, a majority stick to the belief that only men deserve leadership roles.

People acknowledge the contributions of well-known female politicians in Myanmar but dare not recognize that women within their community have a capacity for leadership. Women make up below 1 percent of administrators across 16,753 wards and 63,938 villages.

Since 2015, many vacancies could have been given to women at the community level but there has been a lack of affirmative action and intervention by parties to promote women’s participation. There is a lack of self-confidence among women, technological knowledge about online campaigning and trust in women’s capacity within communities. Women candidates clearly face considerable challenges to win seats on Nov. 8.

Aye Lei Tun is the senior gender program manager at the Enlighten Myanmar Research Foundation. She obtained a master’s degree in development practice at the University of Queensland and another in gender, human rights and conflict studies at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague.

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