The Ladies

By Samantha Michaels 13 January 2014

YANGON — The Myanmar military may need to invest in a batch of new, smaller uniforms. In October, the government announced that women would be invited for the first time in over half a century to join the army—so long as they were single university graduates between the ages of 25 and 30, at least 1.6 meters tall, and no heavier than 59 kilograms.

For those who fit the qualifications, the invitation could open doors in a country where power has long rested with the military. Even today, with a quasi-civilian government headed by a former general, the current Constitution makes military experience a requirement for the presidency and reserves 25 percent of seats in the legislature for military-appointed representatives.

Two years ago the government said women could be drafted for military service during times of emergency, but generally speaking, women previously could only become army nurses. Under military regimes that ruled for decades, this near complete exclusion from the military effectively barred women from politics. The country’s most prominent female politician, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was held under house arrest for about 15 years.

Women were among the most affected by human rights abuses by the former government, as their communities were torn apart by long civil wars that left them vulnerable to forced labor and sexual assault. But today, nearly three years into President U Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian administration, they remain largely excluded from the peace process, even as experts say their involvement is necessary for national reconciliation.

“We wanted a culture of democracy, we are trying to build a culture of democracy, and that starts with equality,” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said last month, speaking at the country’s first international women’s forum in Yangon. “In politics, our women have suffered as greatly as men during the struggle for democracy. … But equally suffering does not always mean we benefit equally.”

Many women fought alongside men against the former dictatorship, facing punishments such as lengthy prison sentences for their activism. In a new era with more freedom to organize and speak out, they are now pushing for greater political representation, but it remains to be seen how much space they can secure in a system that, despite reforms, continues to move at the whims of military men. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and others are devising strategies to fight gender bias, but not without disagreement, raising questions over the best path to the halls of power.

Traces of matriarchy

An old saying in Myanmar offers advice to mothers: “Treat your son like a lord and your husband like a god.” While that saying is not universally accepted, traditionally women in Myanmar have been expected to focus on caring for their children and their family, taking a back seat to their husbands at social gatherings and in public life. Buddhism, the country’s main religion, has also placed women in a subordinate position to men, who are seen as further along the path of reincarnation toward enlightenment.

But if women lack opportunities in Myanmar, it is not for lack of ability. Although girls frequently drop out of school to care for their siblings or help with chores at home, women outnumber men at the university level and are more likely to graduate with master’s degrees. They preserve their independence in other ways, too, keeping their own names after marriage, in contrast to the Western tradition of adopting the husband’s surname. And despite a glass ceiling and unequal pay, women play a key role in the national economy, operating their own shops and roadside stalls on the streets of Yangon, or working in rural areas to plant new crops for harvest.

On the flip side, some women argue that such economic participation amounts to little in a country whose economy was crippled by an era of socialism. The real power has long been tied to the military, which controlled the truly lucrative ventures during the former regime and continues to dominate politics today.

Although a patriarchal system has existed in this country at least since the days when it was ruled by kings, who held power for centuries before British colonialism, researchers suggest that a matriarchal system may have flourished at one time. Queens also held power during the days of monarchy, and women were appointed to high offices, according to historian Daw Mya Sein, who was also one of the country’s most prominent women’s activists in the early 20th century.

“The inheritance of certain oil wells, for instance, belonged exclusively to women; in some cases, the inheritance to the headmanship of a village was through the female line,” she wrote for The Atlantic magazine in 1958, a decade after the country won its independence from the British. She said it was the British Empire’s Constitution that posed challenges. “In 1927, therefore, we did have a little bit of a feminist movement to abolish the clause which provided that women could not stand for election to the legislative council. … In 1929 a woman was elected for the first time to the legislature. Since then, we have had no trouble, and at the present moment we have six women members in Parliament.”

Before military rule was imposed through a coup in 1962, a number of women earned high-ranking spots in the newly independent government. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s mother, Daw Khin Kyi, became a member of Parliament and was later appointed as the country’s first female ambassador, while a prominent female politician, Daw Sein Pu, joined the central committee for the first prime minister’s party.

But after the coup, the people found little room for representation, leaving ethnic and religious minorities as well as women especially marginalized. Nine women were elected to the 449-member People’s Assembly in 1974, making up about 2 percent of lawmakers, and 13 women were elected in 1978. Women won about 3 percent of seats in Parliament during the 1990 election, whose results were nullified by a new military regime. No women were appointed as regional commanders or government ministers, and none were part of the ruling junta.

‘I want to be a general’

The situation today is not significantly better, but with the transition to a quasi-civilian administration women have benefited from greater freedom to organize. In September Myanmar women in exile came back to co-host a women’s forum with local activists in Yangon, pushing for constitutional amendments to reduce gender discrimination. In December, Myanmar also hosted its first international women’s forum, organized partly by the French Embassy with more than 600 people from 27 countries attending, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

In an opening speech, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate focused on the importance of raising children who valued gender equality. “Our women have to understand what their role is in building up a new culture. To me, one of the most important things that the women of this country can do … is to change our own attitudes,” she said.

While acknowledging the need to alter mindsets in the home, other women at the forum called for greater representation in the halls of power. “I don’t want to be the wife of a soldier, I want to be a general,” Ma Shwe Shwe Sein Latt, director of Phan Tee Eain, a local NGO that empowers women and youth, said during a panel discussion.

Myanmar has only one female minister in government, Daw Myat Myat Ohn Khin, who leads the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement. Appointed in 2012, she is the country’s first female cabinet minister in 60 years. In Parliament, less than 5 percent of seats are held by women, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who was elected in 2012. Activists say there are no women serving as chief ministers of the country’s states or regions, or as heads of any of its districts or townships, while very few are running villages.

Perhaps part of the problem lies in schooling. “In textbooks, if you look at lessons on ambition and what one should become, a girl can become a nurse but a boy can be a pilot, or jobs that are considered much more lucrative and higher in position,” Daw Su Su Lwin, a lawmaker who works on education issues for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party, said at the forum.

Women are among the country’s top students, graduating in greater numbers from basic education schools and universities to such an extent that medical schools, law schools and other institutions require them to score higher marks than men for admission.

“I’ve often said we discriminate against men,” said Daw Khin Mar Yee, head of the law department at Yangon University, joking about the shortage of male students and teachers.

But once women graduate, they struggle to secure jobs that match their qualifications not only in government, but also in business, education and the health sector.

“When it comes to opportunities for work, for lucrative jobs, more men are chosen. It’s not a written law, it’s not a regulation, but if you look at the number of men and women in responsible positions, in decision-making positions, there are more men,” said Daw Su Su Lwin.

The government says it is making progress. In October the Ministry of Social Welfare launched a national plan to empower women, while an advertisement in state-run media announced that women could apply for a military cadet training program.

But activists say the program at the Defense Services Academy retains elements of discrimination.

“Boys who finish 10th standard [in high school] can join the training program, but women can only enter after graduating university,” said Ma Htar Htar, a Yangon-based rights activist who runs a women’s empowerment network and organized a campaign to raise awareness about sexual harassment. “And while boys can leave the program to become captains, women only become second lieutenants.”

The question of quotas

In a bid to help more women reach positions of power, some activists are calling for a quota system that would require a certain percentage of women in Parliament and the government. The Constitution already mandates a 25 percent quota of military representatives in the legislature, they say, so why not a quota for women?

“To remove structural barriers, we need to think about some possible affirmative action,” said Ma May Sabe Phyu, a senior coordinator for the Gender Equality Network, which includes more than 90 organizations advocating for women’s rights. While recognizing the danger of unqualified “token” women filling positions, she said a temporary quota system in the legislature, the government and the corporate world could help women reach a critical mass to raise their voices.

Internationally, quotas are seen as a key tool for increasing women’s representation in politics and have been used in some form or another in a majority of countries around the world.

Daw Nyo Nyo Thin, a lawmaker in the Yangon Region Parliament, recommended a 30 percent quota initially. “We should set those seats aside,” she said.

Their hopes could lose steam, however, without support from Myanmar’s best known lady.

“It’s not as simple as all that,” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said at the women’s forum, warning that a quota system could lead to the appointment of women leaders without the proper qualifications. “I want to be able to be proud of our women parliamentarians because they are able and because they are able to represent their constituencies. I don’t want to be proud of them simply because they’re women sitting in Parliament.”

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has expressed ambitions to be the country’s next president, but to reach that goal she would need to amend the Constitution, which currently makes her ineligible.

In parliamentary by-elections in 2012, she said the NLD discriminated positively in favor of women with the right abilities but did not set quotas. “I said ideally I would like half of my candidates to be women. As it turned out, we didn’t get one-third—more than two-thirds were men,” she said. “But the women we got into Parliament are good, and I’m proud of them.”

Others at the forum disagreed with her take. “I hope you don’t mind me shifting a little into quotas, but that’s something that I feel strongly about,” Christine Lagarde, the first female managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), said during a speech shortly after hearing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s position.

Looking back on her own career, Ms. Lagarde noted a low percentage of women in leadership positions and the tendency for mothers to drop out of the workforce as reasons for creating a “target” system, similar to a quota system, for women at the IMF. “I’m strongly in favor of that. I don’t want to quarrel with anybody, I just base it on my own life experience,” she said.

The different viewpoints at the forum echoed similar debates internationally, including in the European Union, where a proposal for quotas to boost women’s leadership in the corporate world has received mixed reactions from leaders over the past year.

Myanmar women are also pushing for more representation as the government and armed rebel groups negotiate ceasefires. “In the peace process, women never start wars and conflicts, but those who suffer most are women, and they have low participation in the peace process,” said Daw Soe Htet Win, a businesswoman who leads the Myanmar Women’s Professional Network and advocates on behalf of women in ceasefire negotiations and development in Kayin State.

In November hundreds of women activists gathered in Yangon to discuss their role in peace-building and ongoing reforms. The international community is also encouraging their involvement. “It’s essential that women be part of the process,” US Ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell told The Irrawaddy. “If there’s a peace process that does not include women, it is not a true comprehensive process and will not lead to true national reconciliation in my view.”

In addition to leading the Gender Equality Network, Ma May Sabe Phyu is a prominent activist promoting peace in Kachin State, where clashes continue to break out between the government and rebel groups.

“Myanmar people rely very much on heroism. We are always expecting somebody to come and take care of all the difficulties we are facing now. But this is not the time to expect somebody to help you out,” she said. “The reality is that we cannot have another person like Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in our lifetime or in our history. We cannot clone her, we cannot have 10 Daw Aung San Suu Kyis.

“Whenever we are talking about leadership for women, the requirements for eligibility are quite long. We need to make it short, that list, because we can have thousands of women leaders from our communities.”

This article first appeared as the cover story of the January 2014 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.