An international Women’s Forum was held in Yangon for the first time on December 6 and 7, 2013, attended by Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society President Ms Veronique Morali and Myanmar’s Daw Aung San Suu Kyi amongst more than 400 local and foreign women participants. Subjects discussed were more varied than expected. Women’s rights and responsibilities formed the main theme which also highlighted the matter of ‘bringing Myanmar women to the fore’ – or in other words – ‘to enhance Myanmar women’s role in society’.

‘‘Myanmar has many educated women, particularly those with higher education MAs and PhDs’’, said a woman participant. ‘‘But I’d like to ask where are these women working? Why don’t we see them in decision-making jobs or high-ranking positions in the government?’’. That question reflects the fact of unequal distribution of jobs among men and women in Myanmar. It also indicates Myanmar women’s wish to effectively alter the image of them being traditionally portrayed only as housewives. They are interested not just in doing administrative business jobs; they are also very much zealous to play in such a predominantly male domain as the current internal peace talks between the government and the armed ethnic groups. ‘‘At the beginning of the peace talks we heard women would be invited to take part in them’’ said a woman discussing under the theme of ‘Women in the Peace-making Equation’. But I’d like to ask, ‘‘Why don’t they now allow us in? Ceasefire is not just about armed conflict’’.

Attendance at the Forum was restricted to responsible women from the government, NGOs and business circles. If teenage girls or young women had been allowed to participate in the discussions there would have been louder voices for women’s rights.

As global movement for sex equality and protection of children’s rights gathers momentum, women worldwide have been able to play a wider role and in several cases, the leadership role. As in history where there were queens we now have a steady stream of women presidents and prime ministers: President Angela Merkel of Germany, President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and President Cristina Kirchner of Argentina are among prominent women leaders like several others playing leading roles as in South Korea and Thailand. That serves as an inspiration to women-folk in Asia that has a sort of man-over-woman tradition or rather a tradition in which ‘man comes first’.

An influencing factor in Myanmar Women’s change of outlook is an increasing contact with worldwide trends in dress-style, social behaviour and attitude, noticeably in underdeveloped countries.

For the first time in Myanmar we now have women ministers and managing directors.


Female decorum

Myanmar women enjoy a relatively greater measure of care and protection, but there still remains much to be done for more women to take part in leadership roles. Traditionally, they are admired for their good looks or beauty rather than for their educational or professional qualifications. Many women in Myanmar quit their jobs once they get married and restrict themselves to the role of housewife leaving the husband in charge of earning income for the family. This is still the way with many families in the countryside though it is less so in towns and cities. In some rural areas stay-at-home young women never going out to work are considered to be living a decorous life.

In a Myanmar family, the husband is the head of the household, often referred to as ‘god of the house’ The Myanmar language has many expressions that put the husbands role or position above the wife’s: a married woman is obliged to respect her husband. As regards to the state of women’s rights, there are varied views among women themselves. Daw May Win Kyu, a woman aged about 60 said, ‘‘I wouldn’t say we either inferior of superior to man. Personally, I see men and women as equals.’’ But Ma Yamin Nwe Oo, a teenage girl said ‘‘I felt in my younger days that my brother was treated with more favour. To me Dad would often say, ‘You’re only a girl, you won’t be able to do anything useful.’’ Sex equality seems to be a matter of individual opinion. Ju, one of the well-known writers expressed her views; ‘‘Women in Myanmar can enjoy women’s rights in full, legally speaking, that is. But in cases where you can’t see distinctly enough, such as a household where the husband rules the roost and the wife takes a back seat perhaps under duress or willingly out of her love and respect for him. What she said still rings true to this day.

There are many cases of women being denied their rights to education and justice. ‘‘These women feel as if there’s no law for them’’, said Dr Daw Nyo Nyo Thin, a Yangon Region MP, who had received many complaints. ‘‘They are easily bullied, easily beaten; it has become something of everyday incident.’’ In the absence of the rule of law most physical assaults went unreported. To avoid disgrace to the village, rape cases were traditionally settled by killing a pig and distributing the pork among the villagers.

Many young women leave school after learning the rudiments of reading and writing, a custom that stunts their leadership potential. There are some institutes of higher learning raising women’s exam marks required for admission above those of men.

The gap is still wide

Though there are some positive signs of change in women’s role, they are still far from satisfactory. Though there are more than 90 minister and deputy minister posts in the government, the Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement Ministry alone has a woman minister. Six deputy ministers at the other ministries is a relatively small number. Though there are some women directors, women directors-general are few and far between. Men outnumber women in such places as the health and education ministries where there used to be a predominance of women. In the two Houses of over 664-seat Parliament women make up only 4.67 percent (31 MPs). Even in countries that have just about the same level of development as Myanmar, such as Cambodia and Laos, women make up 25 percent to 30 percent of MPs.

Despite such unsatisfactory state of women’s role in politics there is an encouraging side: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, since 1990, has had a great influence over the people in Myanmar. She is a woman the world has recognized as Myanmar’s democracy icon. The people look up to her as their great leader. She was expected to be a candidate for the presidency in the coming general elections in 2015.

In the fields of civil society and entrepreneurship Myanmar women made some strides. They are now taking part actively in such organizations as Myanmar Women Entrepreneurs’ Association and UMFCCI. For example, Daw Khaing Khaing Nwe, Associate Secretary-General of UMFCCI, is playing an active role in dealing with employee-employer problems. Many big business companies, however, continue to be dominated by men. There are several companies where the husband is MD and wife is director, an instance of ownership overlapping management.

What the future holds

Is there any likelihood of women getting a chance to play a leading role in the country’s future? It’s a good question. The Forum President Ms Veronique Morali said; ‘‘We want to listen to women in this fast-opening society, we want to stand by when they are driving change’’

There’s a fervent wish for Myanmar women to get more opportunity with taking part in the country’s administration and legislature.

For broader participation by women there have to be a change of attitude towards women and a shift in official policy. Cultural change will take a long time; most people think policy changes are preferable. Ko Myo Yan Naung Thein, director of BAYDA Institute and a teacher of political science said, ‘‘Myanmar women’s participation in politics will remain negligible, as long as we’re unable to adopt to the quota system’’. ‘‘Because’’, he added ‘‘Culturally, women have nothing to do with politics’’. Some argue that what it needs is not quota system but better educational qualification for women. A proposal for adoption of quota system was turned down in Parliament in 2012. Some said the system, if adopted at all, should set a minimum on the quota to avoid restriction on the number of women.

Though traditionally, a less number of Myanmar women than men have taken an interest in politics, their number in existing political parties is more than half the total number of members according to some figures available. The number of women attending the BAYDA Institute classes make up more than 30 percent of the total students and their enthusiasm points to a brighter future for woman’s participation in politics.

Significant indeed is a recent admission of women into Myanma Tatmadaw, the official move to allow women into the ranks. Already there’re women bodyguards to the President U Thein Sein. How far up these women can expect to rise above their ranks in the army is something to wait and see.

The most interesting thing is the general elections to be held in 2015. People in Myanmar and the rest of the world are watching to see how things will turn out then. The NLD that had won a sweeping victory (43 seats out of 45) in the 2012 by-election still holds sway over the people. Provided the 2015 elections are free and fair she is most likely to become the president of Myanmar. But the section 59 (f) of the Constitution is acting as a barrier and until this section is amended there’s no way of her becoming Myanmar’s President.

At the moment many political parties including the NLD are making efforts to amend the Constitution. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s proposal for a dialogue on the Constitution amendment between herself, President U Thein Sein, Pyithu Huttaw Chairman Thura U Shwe Mann and Chief of Staff Senior General Min Aung Hlaing was rejected. Her being elected or not to be the President of Myanmar could affect the role of women in Myanmar’s society either in a good way or a bad way. She is now already nearly 70 years old and it would take a long time before any woman can hope to become a lady of her caliber.

The current trend indicates an ever wider role in women leadership perceptibly in the business field. It would take some time for women to get top positions in the administration and political spheres. To become a head of state like a president is still unpredictable.

This article, courtesy of Acumen Magazine, was first published there in  February 2014.
Acumen Magazine is a business magazine that connects businesses to one another and to the world.
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Leena Salim
Leena Salim comes from the overcrowded city island of Singapore. She has traveled to and lived in many other overcrowded cities around the world through her work as a singer, actor, emcee and now, a writer. She now resides in yet another overcrowded city that is Yangon with her imaginary cat, Miss Muffinface.


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