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Gender Inclusion in Myanmar’s National Unity Government: Add Women and Stir?

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Gender Inclusion in Myanmar’s National Unity Government: Add Women and Stir?

Gender inclusion transcends mere equality.

Gender Inclusion in Myanmar’s National Unity Government: Add Women and Stir?

Zin Mar Aung, the minister for foreign affairs of Myanmar’s opposition National Unity Government, speaks during a Chin National Day event in Indianapolis, February 20, 2023.

Credit: Twitter/Zin Mar Aung

Women have been on the front lines of the resistance movement that has stood up to Myanmar’s military junta since its seizure of power in February 2021. Over the past two years, however, the National Unity Government (NUG), which is directing the resistance movement, has produced few concrete outcomes for women. They remain largely excluded from leadership roles and decision-making within the political structures of the NUG and other resistance organizations like the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC). As one of the interim political structures that emerged in opposition to the coup, one that has the explicit goal of building a genuine and inclusive democratic Myanmar, it is only fitting to examine how and to what extent it has included women.

The NUG is one of three key structures of Myanmar’s parallel government to the military junta’s State Administration Council. The other two are the NUCC, and the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw. These and 20 other organizations and groups are the main drivers of the nationwide resistance to the military junta. The NUG claims to represent the only and legitimate government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.

The NUG has four heads of government: state counselor, president, acting president, and prime minister. Both the state counselor (Aung San Suu Kyi) and president (Win Myint) were arrested and imprisoned since the first day of the military coup, hence their appointment is symbolic rather than practical. While the state counselor, president, and acting president serve as heads of state, the prime minister is head of government. The NUG cabinet has 17 ministries, including the Ministry of Women, Youth and Children, and the Ministry of Human Rights. At the time of writing, all except the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Commerce have both substantive ministers and deputy ministers.

The vision of the NUG is to “build a peaceful Federal Democracy which guarantees freedom, justice and equality.” It describes its core values as “Democracy Rights, Gender Equality and basic Human Rights; Equality and Self-Determination; Collective Leadership; Diversity, Social Harmony, Solidarity and Non-Discrimination; and Protection of Minority Rights.”

The NUG’s core duties and mandate include implementing the political goals, objectives, and roadmap stipulated in the Federal Democracy Charter that was created in 2021, through which partner political parties, ethnic armed revolutionary organizations, and civil society groups can collectively to discuss and validate political agreements and implement the way forward.

The Concept of Gender Inclusion

As a concept, gender inclusion transcends mere equality. It encapsulates the view that all opportunities, resources, processes, and institutions should be equally open to both women and men, boys and girls, and that masculine and feminine stereotypes should not define societal roles and expectations. In the context of political participation, it means that women and men have equal opportunities and access to all political positions and structures, as well as equal power and influence over political decision-making.

This means that gender inclusion in politics is more than “just adding a few women and stirring.” It is also more than just ensuring that women and men have equal number of seats in parliament and equal ministerial portfolios. It involves ensuring that women and men of diverse backgrounds have equal access to political positions and roles and can equally participate in the decision-making processes with equal power and influence. Achieving this involves creating an inclusive environment, enabling equal access to political leadership, and addressing the social, economic, cultural, and legal barriers to women’s political participation.

The NUG has demonstrated its commitment to gender inclusion by creating a separate ministry dedicated to women, youth and children’s issues, and the first Ministry of Human Rights in Myanmar’s history. The ministers of Commerce and Women, Youth and Children are both women and ethnic nationality representatives, and around 24 percent NUG’s 37 high-level positions are held by women. The NUG is more inclusive and diverse than the ousted National League for Democracy government. Indeed, some have described it as the most inclusive and diverse political structure in the history of Myanmar.

However, the NUG’s inclusivity is more evident in relation to ethnicity than gender. While the NUG has several women ministers and deputy ministers, men continue to dominate most of the high-level positions within the NUG. Similarly, men dominate the leadership structures of most of the country’s EAOs, which predate the military coup but whose sway has grown in the post-coup conflict. The current leadership of the NUG is dominated by ethnic Bamar men with token inclusion of women and other minority groups.

The top level of the NUG’s hierarchy is dominated by men (Aung San Suu Kyi, the state counselor, is the only woman). Women only constitute three out of the 17 members of its cabinet. There are also just three female deputy ministers out of a total of 15. Female members of cabinet currently occupy less influential roles or traditionally gendered portfolios such as women, youth, and children, education, and health. The obvious exception is Minister of Foreign Affairs Zin Mar Aung. However, as with most women who have made it to the top in Myanmar, she hails from an educated urban elite milieu.

It is obvious from the ongoing discussion that the NUG’s strategy of gender inclusion has been to add a few elite women into a structure dominated by men. It is therefore safe to say that it has fallen short of its inclusive credentials in relation to gender, even beyond the obvious fact that there are fewer women than men within the NUG.

First, while “adding” women is one way to strengthen women’s political inclusion, it fails to adequately address the entrenched patriarchal norms and structures that perpetuate gender inequality in Myanmar, irrespective of who wields political power. Equality is politics is a good approach but not good enough to ensure women’s transformative participation in politics. Barriers to women’s political participation exist not because of a lack of female politicians, but rather because of the existence of deep-rooted patriarchal gender dynamics that perpetuate and reinforce women’s political exclusion.

Focusing on numerical targets as the only benchmark of equality does not address these patriarchal social, political, economic, and legal structures. To ensure women’s meaningful inclusion in the NUG, there is the urgent need to address the gender inequalities and power dynamics between women and men rather than just adding women with the hope that the gender inequalities in politics will disappear.

Second, the NUG’s approach of just adding women and stirring assumes that women are a monolithic bloc with the same goals, interests, needs, and concerns. On the contrary, women in Myanmar are heterogeneous, with complex multiple identities, experiences, interests, needs, and concerns. Third, throwing in a few women into a male-dominated political structure reduces issues of gender inclusion to a box-ticking or photo op exercise, which depoliticizes and minimizes the complexities of gender as a social construct.

Fourth, the add women and stir approach places undue responsibility on the few elite women within the NUG, placing the burden of responsibility for creating a genuinely inclusive democratic Myanmar onto their shoulders. Finally, lumping women and children into one ministry feeds into the motherist narrative that reinforces the patriarchal association of  women and motherhood (the private sphere of family) and men and leadership (the public sphere of politics). This further reinforces the structural inequality between women and men.

While the NUG may be the most inclusive and diverse political structure in Myanmar’s history, from a gender perspective it is still far from been reflective of the country’s population. This far, it has made better improvements in its inclusion of ethnic nationalities than women. Without more substantive efforts towards gender inclusion, the NUG risks perpetuating the growing perception that its appointment of women amounts to mere tokenism.