Will elections change the male face of public life in Myanmar, asks Khin Khin Mra.
For a long time now, the face of public life in Myanmar has been male.
This is due to the country’s patriarchal power structure, profoundly militarised culture and exclusion of women from positions of authority.
Even in its democratisation and adoption of a new constitution, Myanmar can be still seen as a masculine state with its male-dominated institutions and neither egalitarian nor supportive of women’s political advancement.
The constitution itself can be seen as masculine because power is concentrated in the hands of the military, with a single strongman, patriarchal rule, and less protection of individual rights and ethnic minorities’ demands for self-determination within a federal union.
The constitution does guarantee all persons equal rights before the law and equal legal protection (Section 347). The rights to vote and run for public office are also guaranteed (Section 9), and the constitution does not discriminate against any Myanmar citizen on the basis of sex, among other things (Section 348).
On the other hand, the constitution does not include a definition of discrimination against women, or prohibit either direct or indirect discrimination against them. The constitution also requires the President to have experienced with military affairs (Section 59-d).
In addition, the constitution clearly prescribes that ‘nothing in this section shall prevent appointment of men to positions that are naturally suitable for men only’ (Section 352). It is a discriminatory statement and denies women equal opportunities for choice and decision making.
These vague statements could be effectively used to disqualify women from taking leadership positions, such as the President, or constrain women from standing office for high positions.
In addition, the language of ‘he’ has been used in referring to the qualifications and criteria for the President and Vice-Presidents (Section 59). The constitution includes references to women principally as ‘mothers’, which not only reinforces a gendered stereotype of women as ideal mothers, but contends that their reproductive roles are in need of protection (Section 32).
When it comes to elected representatives, the constitution also provides for the direct election of 75 per cent of the members of both chambers of Myanmar’s national assembly, with the remaining 25 per cent being appointed by the Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Services. But currently only two of the 110 military appointees in the 440 member Pyithu Hluttaw, are women. Speakers of both houses are men, and both ex-military officials.
Overall, women’s representation in parliament is very low – between 6.6 to 20 per cent in the four constitutionally mandated committees/standing committees for each house (CEDAW 2011). In addition, there are only two women Union Ministers out of 36 ministerial positions and they are appointed to ‘soft’ or ‘feminised portfolios’ such as education and social welfare.
Women represent more than half Myanmar’s population of 51.41 million, but hold only 4.6 per cent of seats at all levels of the Myanmar Parliament. Women account for 4.42 per cent of seats at the national level and only 2.83 per cent at state and regional level. There are no women administrators at township level, and only 0.11 per cent of village heads are women.
When compared with the global benchmark of 30 per cent representation and with other ASEAN countries Myanmar does very poorly in terms of women’s political representation’. For example, Cambodia (21.1 per cent), Laos (25.2 per cent) and Vietnam (25.8 per cent) all have higher levels of representation.
According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (2015), the percentage of women in the lower house ranks at 130 out of 143, and the percentage of women in the upper house is the world’s second lowest (1.9 per cent) after Yemen (1.8 per cent).
Will the upcoming election change this scenario? Not likely.
According to Union Election Commission (UEC), only 13.38 per cent of the 6,074 candidates contesting the election are women –237 in the Pyithu Hluttaw/ Lower House, 122 in the Amyotha Hluttaw/ Upper House, and 437 in State and Regional parliaments. It is possible that women’s representation at the parliament at all levels will not be more than 10 per cent after Sunday’s vote.
Clearly this will not be able to change the face of public life in Myanmar.
Although there has been a change in the political system defined by a new institutional arrangement for the access and wielding of power, the primacy of the old order has been safeguarded by military-initiated reforms.
In Myanmar, the state’s key institutions, including the constitution and the parliament, are highly masculine with the rules set and created by the leadership of men. Myanmar’s long-standing tradition of excluding women from positions of power, the culture of male domination of the military and the 25 per cent quota of the army’s representation granted by the constitution, further hamper women from exercising and realising their political rights.
Although democratic transitions are considered as moments of positive transformation for women’s rights and gender equality, the low status of women’s political rights in Myanmar is alarming.
Women’s political rights need to be part and parcel of democracy and democratic principles of equal human rights.
Khin Khin Mra is a master’s student at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy, researching women’s political rights in Myanmar’s democratic transition. She is the women’s rights program manager at ActionAid Myanmar.
This article forms part of New Mandala’s ‘Myanmar and the vote‘ series.