On a recent trip to Burma (also known as Myanmar) as an observer on a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) delegation, I met with dozens of leading government officials, activists, and civil society leaders to talk about the changes taking place in the country and the prospects for a peaceful transition to democracy.
There was an overwhelming sense in the country that the democratic reforms that have been launched over the past year are genuine, despite an underlying atmosphere of cautious optimism among many of the people we met during the six-day visit, including both Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein. For example, our group held one public meeting with an overflow audience, during which women and men from both civil society and the governing party spoke candidly about their concerns and aspirations for their country’s future. Moreover, there seems to be a tacit agreement among influential parties to focus on building a shared future rather than revisiting the past. That degree of forbearance and the commitment to confidence-building were striking, but it’s also important to examine how widely it extends.
Despite the commitment of good will from people on all sides, the number of influential reformers is relatively small in Burma, and the reform agenda remains fragile and faces significant challenges. For one, although the military officers now in government seem committed to gradually turning the country over to civilian rule, this commitment is conditioned on the establishment of peace and stability. Meanwhile, the current constitution gives a National Security and Defense Commission of senior generals the power to re-establish martial law at any time. It’s unlikely that the democratic opposition can change that since constitutional revisions require support from 75 percent of parliament and 25 percent of the seats are reserved for the military.
The history of democratic transitions globally and regionally suggests that long-term peace and stability will only be achieved by reaching a political settlement with the various ethnic nationalities, which together comprise almost half the population of Burma. Yet those with influence are currently framing the path to peace with the ethnic nationalities in terms of reaching or maintaining ceasefires and promoting economic growth, not political settlement.
Within this fluid environment, predicting what role women can and will play in building Burma’s future is challenging. In general, the paucity of reliable data about the status and position of women in Burma makes it very difficult to draw conclusions, and indeed underscores that the country remains in the earliest stages of a democratic opening that should bring greater accountability and transparency.
In fact, there are already a number of prominent women in leadership roles. The majority of doctors, nurses, and teachers are female, offering powerful role models for girls and young women as they consider a professional future and potentially increasing the currently low female labor force participation rate.
Many of the people I met during my visit asserted that women already have a powerful role in decision-making, though traditionally it is often behind the scenes. However, despite Aung San Suu Kyi’s prominence as the leader of the democratic opposition and a newly-elected member of parliament, women are seriously underrepresented in the parliament, as well as in management positions in the business world. There are successful women entrepreneurs in the business sector, and women are working in so-called “non-traditional” sectors such as construction, but women are commonly paid a lower wage than their male counterparts, even for equal work.
Meanwhile, women continue to be the targets of human rights abuses, including human trafficking and sexual violence, particularly in conflict-affected areas. Among the many challenges Burma will face moving forward is ensuring that women from across the political, geographical, and ethnic spectrums have robust roles to play in shaping the country’s future and ensuring that the benefits of reform accrue to everyone. I came away with the general sense that women are eager to take up the challenge.
President Thein Sein recently demonstrated a commitment to broadening the set of voices in his cabinet, bringing in the first woman minister, Dr. Myat Myat Ohn Khin, as minister for social welfare, relief, and resettlement in early September. This is laudable, and one hopes it is just the first in a series of steps aimed at embracing the critical role that women must play in building a thriving economy and durable, lasting, and just peace.
Eileen Pennington is The Asia Foundation’s associate director for the Women’s Empowerment Program in Washington, D.C. This piece originally appeared on The Asia Foundation’s In Asia blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.