Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Dashed Hopes for Myanmar’s Women

Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has not been the game changer for women that many hoped it would be.

By Akanksha Khullar for
Dashed Hopes for Myanmar’s Women

Supporters of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party wearing headbands reading “Amend the 2008 constitution” cheer during a rally near the city hall in Yangon, Myanmar, July 17, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Thein Zaw

Having women play a central role in political activism and robust leadership is not unknown in Myanmar. In fact, as early as 1992, Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s present de facto leader, came to be popularly known as an international symbol of democracy and resilience due to her untrammelled moral rectitude, dignity, and immense determination. Yet patriarchal, cultural, and institutional constraints have continued to distort women’s participation within both state and non-state governance bodies, from the national levels to the local levels.

High hopes were raised for a reversal of this trend with the remarkable victory of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), which brought with it a fresh influx of female lawmakers into the newly formed, quasi-civilian government. Moreover, with the country’s key decision-maker being a woman, there were augmented expectations that concrete steps would be undertaken to support female representation in the government.

However, despite the initial sparks of positivism, women’s participation in the state and national parliaments remains limited through today — not only in terms of numbers but also regarding the extent to which their voice translates to policy change.  In order to secure power in the upcoming 2020 elections, the NLD has much to gain if it acknowledges the contributions made by women, provides them with greater political decision-making roles, and develops a comprehensive gender policy targeted towards their empowerment.

Has Anything Changed for the Better?

The process of unprecedented reforms and democratization in Myanmar, along with international pressure, expanded the scope of discussion on gender equality and women’s rights — something that was missing for more than half a century under the military dictatorship. But there has been little in the way of concrete change beyond an increase in the number of women politicians, which although significant, continues to remain highly unsatisfactory.

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At the 2010 elections, which marked the end of the authoritarian military regime and the beginning of the quasi-civilian government — though the polls were boycotted by the NLD for a lengthy list of reasons — women won 36 out of 1541 parliamentary seats nationwide, with 11 women out of 224 legislators in the upper house, six women out of 440 in the lower house, and 19 women out of 665 members of the different state and regional assemblies.

In light of such discriminatory statistics, many hailed the 2015 elections for affording a greater opportunity to women to participate in representational governance as the number of female parliamentarians increased significantly to a total of 151 elected seats. Within the national parliament, 23 women were elected to the upper house and 44 to the lower house, forming a paltry of 13.7 percent of all the elected members. At the state and regional level, 84 women were elected. In addition, two female candidates were appointed by the military to the lower house and two at the state and regional level.

Currently, women, who make up over 50 percent of Myanmar’s total population (28,256,701 of 55,708,935 total people) occupy just 44 of the 433 seats in the lower house of the parliament and 23 of the 224 seats in the upper house.

Despite their recent gains, women continue to face myriad obstacles in participating effectively in politics. Political parties, which present an important entry point for women to increase their participation in political leadership, are also not doing enough to address the institutional and cultural constraints to gender equity.

NLD Continues to Undermine Women’s Participation

The marked increase in women’s political participation has often been credited to the NLD’s strategy to prioritize women. The party fielded 150 female candidates in the 2015 elections, out of which 134 were elected. As a result, the NLD represented the highest percentage of women within the parliament. While that strategy might have got NLD much-needed traction and ultimately worked in its favor to win the elections, a deeper analysis of the situation demonstrates that, like any other political party, the NLD has done little to support women’s political representation in Myanmar.

For starters, the NLD manifesto section on women, although containing positive sentiments about the inclusion of female representatives in the nation’s sociopolitical framework, lacks any specific policies that would improve the situation — such as potential reforms to the electoral system or consideration of a gender equality policy in various governance mechanisms. The absence of a comprehensive agenda demonstrates the NLD’s lackadaisical attempt to address the issue without providing an actual direction to achieve the desired outcomes.

Similarly, on various occasions NLD party members, including Suu Kyi herself, made compelling promises to include more and more women in their ranks. Yet they put forward only 150 female candidates in the 2015 elections, which is about 15 percent of those representing the party, as compared to 30 percent female candidates listed during the 2012 by-elections. According to NLD spokesperson U Win Thein, this low number was because many women were “green,” “inexperienced,” and supposedly “lack confidence to be involved in politics.” This perception was reiterated by Nan Khin Htwe Myint, an NLD central committee member, who suggested that women are overwhelmed with responsibilities of the “kitchen and changing the flowers of the Buddha,” which is why they can’t give their full attention to politics like men.

In fact, the only woman in the union-level cabinet of the new NLD-led government formed in March 2016 was Suu Kyi. As per the Asian Network for Free Elections, not a single female minister was appointed under Suu Kyi’s leadership in 2016; several other strategic positions that could and should have been filled by women, such as the Women Affairs Committee, ironically had a majority of male committee members. Besides the lack of external female representation, the party’s internal senior decision-making positions have continued to be dominated by the men. For instance, the NLD’s 21-member Central Executive Committee includes only three women.

Given these statements and facts, it rather seems like the NLD — although trying to present a progressive and forward-looking front — remains firmly in the grip of patriarchal norms, which equate women with unskilled labor and perceive them as incapable decision-makers. Stuck in the limbo of internal party divisions and the pressing demands from civil society organizations to include more women, the NLD has therefore opted for a safer route: it has facilitated women’s inclusion, but this inclusion has been limited to low-and mid-level political positions. Efforts to increase women’s political participation need to be coupled with efforts to secure their political effectiveness.

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More recently, NLD received considerable criticism during the 2017 by-elections for nominating only two females among the 18 candidates that it chose to compete. The fact that the NLD fielded two female candidates, despite being led by a woman, accounts for part of the overall poor showing for female candidates. If the NLD was really committed to enhancing women’s political participation, they would have stuck close to the 30 percent ratio of female representatives that they fielded in the 2012 by-elections.

Additionally, up until March of this year, the NLD was not even supportive of the 30 percent quota system for women. Suu Kyi and others in the party argued that women’s participation in leadership positions should be determined by their qualifications. However, the argument that qualification should be the only factor to consider in electing and appointing leaders ignores the cultural and structural barriers that women face to obtain political leadership experience. In order to overcome these challenges, proactive policy measures are sometimes necessary.

Though the NLD recently renewed its commitment to increase female representation by calling for a minimum of 30 percent participation in each sector of the government, much depends on the political will of its members.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s underwhelming stance on the women’s leadership advancement has been a disappointment. Leading up to the 2020 elections, the NLD will have to revise its strategy and play a much more active role in promoting women empowerment.

Akanksha Khullar is a Researcher at the Center for Internal and Regional Security at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.