A lack of political will and interest in promoting women leadership at national level is being compromised by the competing agendas of the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government.
Though the NLD recently renewed its commitment to increase female representation by calling for a minimum of 30 percent of female representation in each sector of the government, women are still gravely underrepresented in politics. The March announcement comes in stark contrast to comments made in 2018 when the party stated they did not support the implementation of a quota system for women in positions of political leadership. In the much-touted series of Union Peace Conferences (UPC), more than 670 women are contributing to peace building—and yet roughly one quarter serve as formal delegates to the UPC.
Women continue to face challenges in their communities, including violence which includes physical and emotional abuse that threatens their safety and security. Women’s groups have worked together in solidarity with calls for much needed and long-overdue reforms to legislation that must go further in protecting women, including the Prevention and Protection of Violence Against Women Act Burma law, which was set to be enacted early this year. Many women in leadership positions feel held back and experience limitations in their ability to lead due to the centralization of power in Myanmar at the national level of politics.
“Before the NLD was in power, women’s organizations had to work extremely hard to have recognition in society alongside the democracy movements taking place on the [Myanmar] border,” says Maw Ehwah, general secretary of the Burmese Women’s Union.
On International Women’s Day on March 8, the government announced plans to implement a 2013-2022 national strategic plan for the advancement of women that targets 12 main focus points in gender equality, in line with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Beijing Declaration and its Platform for Action. Despite signing the CEDAW in February 2000, the optional protocols to established complaint and inquiry mechanisms have not been ratified.
Unfortunately, the NLD’s approach to working with civil society groups has fragmented and sowed divisions in the gender equality movement. The activities of civil society are being closely monitored as the Myanmar military continues to maintain significant power and influence over key ministries, notably the Department of Home Affairs.
In addition, the NLD has received sharp criticism this year over the increase in lawsuits against human rights activists, notably the Kachin human rights defenders, Nang Pu, Lum Zawng and Zau Jat, who were released in May after serving four months in prison for “defaming” the military during an anti-war protest. Another more recent case was the arrest of Naw Ohn Hla, a land rights and political activist, together with four colleagues in Myawaddy, Karen State following a protest over a controversial housing project at the end of April 2019.
The 2008-military drafted Constitution makes it difficult for the defacto head of state, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to challenge ministries that override female participation. One such example is Chapter 8, Article 352 which makes the point, “nothing in this section shall prevent the appointment of men to the positions that are suitable for men only.”
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s underwhelming stance on the women’s leadership advancement has been a disappointment. Her close working relationship with the military has also led to apprehension from civil society on the new NLD agenda and in particular how it seeks to create more opportunities for women in leadership at a national level. Currently, women compromise just over 11 percent of the 433 seats in Lower House of Parliament and 12 percent of 224 seats in the Upper House.
General Secretary of the Karenni National Women’s Organization (KNWO) Mie Mie says the lack of cooperation and understanding from the NLD has contributed to additional barriers for women interested in entering politics. This includes a lack of reforms to the electoral system or consideration to developing a gender equality policy.
As a result of these attitudes and actions, civil society groups has become more reserved in their working relationships with government authorities. Organizations who arrange protests or advocacy events require extensive permission from the Ministry of Home Affairs through the Peaceful Assembly Law.
Women’s organizations like KNWO have felt the impacts of restrictions imposed on civil society operations through a lack of public meetings with female members of parliament (MPs), contributing to a notable gap in meaningful dialogue between the government and key local advocates.
“The NLD-government is not willing to coordinate with civil society and they don’t seem to have the capacity or knowledge on how to coordinate with stakeholders. Another problem is that the State government is not aware of the current political context and they don’t listen to the voices of the people,” said Mie Mie.
When people’s participation is limited, so are the activities of civil society, and this which disrupts the platform that civil society organizations (CSOs) use to advocate in the political sphere to appeal for human rights and equality. Maw Ehwah acknowledges how the role of the military has contributed to the fragmented image of the NLD over the years saying they’ve made operations more difficult.
Largely, the frustration stems from the acceptance and adherence to the prioritization of male leadership over women.
“Under the present government, it is evident that women’s participation in politics and leadership is not respected. This can be seen in the lack of female participation in the peace process,” said Maw Ehwah.
Lway Nan Moe is a female member of parliament representing the Ta’ang National Party. In 2015, she ran for election and won a seat in the Lower House. She is the also a member of the Parliament’s International Relations Committee where she is the only woman on the central working committee alongside 64 men.
“It’s hard for a young woman to be in politics, but I never complain and I am not afraid of anything. I am like a man,” she said.
Mong Ton Township is a conflict area in northern Shan State with constant fighting. It’s also the township Lway Nan Moe represents.
“I refuse to let the conflict stop me from campaigning. The people need me. Whatever I can give, I give. I must go meet them,” she said.
Given the lack of female representation in politics, she recognizes the importance of maintaining her influence as a strong young woman with management and political experience.
Frustrated, she says men do not want to give women seats for representation. Of 20
government committees, only three are chaired by women: The Committee for Government Accountability, the Committee for Banking and Development and the Committee for Women. She also wants to see more ethnic leadership.
As women’s groups continue to work towards strengthening and coordinating their efforts for change in the country, including in the attitudes and perceptions of men, the government must work with both genders to increase awareness at every level on the importance of equal representation. Challenging traditional roles is possible through reforms to the political system which should allow women to have a space to practice their skills with confidence.
Some of the things the government could do to support women more willingly is to incorporate gender budgeting, instill quota systems in political parties and in the government system.
The NLD has much to gain if the contributions of women are taken into account in the future planning of the country’s economic and social success, especially at the discussions taking place at the Union Panglong Conferences. Otherwise, their ability to progress will continue to be undermined by the lack of policy promoting equality for women which is needed at national level.
Maggi Quadrini is based in Chiang Mai and works as communications officer for the Shan Women’s Action Network. She also researches women’s activism in Myanmar.