Women’s Low Representation Overlooked in Myanmar Reforms

Zin Mar Aung, a former political prisoner in Myanmar who is now a candidate for the country’s 2015 parliamentary elections and an activist for women’s rights, was in Washington on Tuesday to raise awareness about the continuing underrepresentation of women in the decision-making bodies of Myanmar’s government. “It is ironic that the face of the Burma democracy movement has been a woman’s face when women in fact have not been allowed to be as central as they need to be in all levels of government,” said Susan Williams, a professor and director of the Center for Constitutional Democracy at the Indiana University School of Law. Myanmar’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, has been led for years by the activist and politician Aung San Suu Kyi. Williams, who serves as a constitutional adviser to the Women’s League of Burma and other parties in Myanmar’s democracy movement, told Trend Lines, “You can’t call a country a democracy if 50 percent of its population is essentially disenfranchised and unrepresented.” Williams said Myanmar’s government must involve women in ongoing conversations about constitutional reforms with ethnic minority groups. “The point there is not so much that women and men are going to prioritize different things, but that women have a different perspective and a different experience on the same problems, and that's why they need to be at the table where those problems are discussed,” she explained. In particular, Williams emphasized the need for women in Myanmar to ensure that the constitution provides protections from gender discrimination and adequate political representation for women. Williams said the international community has leverage to help promote women’s political participation in Myanmar and should use it more. “The international community has a lot of influence over the various civil society organizations in ethnic minority areas, because most of their funding comes from international sources,” she said. She explained it would be possible for international funders to insist that these groups’ constitutional negotiating teams include a certain percentage of women. Williams also emphasized the ongoing horrors experienced by Myanmar’s ethnic minorities as a major obstacle to consolidating democracy in the country. “Their people are killed by the army en masse and have been for many years,” she said. “They live in areas of Burma that have been systematically at best ignored and at worst destroyed.” Williams argued that for democracy and stability to take hold in the country, ethnic minorities must feel they have sufficient autonomy to protect their interests. The story of Myanmar’s political reform, though often focusing on opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s struggle against the former military rulers, becomes much more complicated in light of these issues, Williams said. “The nitty gritty details of political structures and constitutional arrangements are not so simple and not so romantic, and that's why it’s not often covered,” she said. Williams also emphasized that despite some reforms, the government has maintained its lock on power. “The same people are still running things. They've retired from the military and taken over civilian institutions, but it's the same people, and they really haven’t let very many others into power,” she said. “So until and unless power starts being dispersed beyond a core of former military leaders, we are not going to see real democratization, and I think the rest of the world has to keep their eye on that as well.” Should Zin Mar Aung be elected in 2015, she would join only a handful of women in the legislature. Williams said efforts to introduce a gender quota into the legislature are proving challenging because Myanmar already “has a 25 percent quota for military officers, people appointed by the commander-in-chief, and every one of them is male.” Yet despite women’s low political participation, Williams said that for Myanmar, “having a very high-profile woman like Aung San Suu Kyi is helpful to women’s empowerment. And she is a remarkable person highly regarded by all groups. So there are some role models, but the challenges women face are the same as they are everywhere.”

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