A woman wears stickers with the image of Myanmar's State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi on her cheeks as she attends a broadcast of the live speech by Suu Kyi in front of City Hall in Yangon on September 19, 2017. Photo: Aw Htet

Under the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has taken on a stable but cautious leadership style that has prioritized peace negotiations over the country’s long history of economic destabilization and social unrest.

Women’s political leadership in Myanmar is nothing new, yet a long history of the government and military prioritizing male-only positions has distorted the participation levels of women across the country. Despite the transition to a quasi-civilian-led government, opportunities for women to access senior positions at national levels are limited.

To date, there have been three sessions of the Union Peace Conference (UPC), with the latest delayed multiple times until it was held in mid-July. One of the few bright spots in the seemingly futile negotiations has been the record number of women involved in the process. The most recent round witnessed women accounting for 17% of the delegates who were invited as observers. It was also the first time the topic of gender equality was approved to be on agenda under the political sector.

All stakeholders involved in the Union Panglong Conference unanimously agreed upon inclusiveness as the most important principle in building a federal, democratic union in Myanmar, and yet the lack of equality in political spaces due to unbalanced figures of representation is unacceptable.

Despite the fact that the 2015 general elections saw a significant increase in the number of women elected to office, in July this year the NLD announced that it did not support quota systems for women in positions of political leadership but stated “they could take up such roles when they have the necessary skills” – a slight that denies skills that have in fact been met.

The challenge has been bringing equality in political spaces by actually balancing representation. The military, and the 2008 constitution it drafted, is one of the main reasons for the current distortion in female participation in government

The challenge has been bringing equality in political spaces by actually balancing representation. The military, and the 2008 constitution it drafted, is one of the main reasons for the current distortion in female participation in government.

Several sections of the charter limit the participation of women in various sectors, as observed in Chapter 8, Article 353, which states, “Nothing in this section shall prevent the appointment of men to the positions that are suitable for men only.” This reinforces an unwillingness of the military, or Tatmadaw, to consider any qualifications that exist outside of the male gender as well as an arrogance that goes so far as to suggest that only men are capable of leading.

There are also requirements that imply that positions should be filled by serving military officers – namely generals, none who whom are women. Chapter 5, Article 352(A) indirectly excludes women from holding ministerial portfolios as certain positions are mandated as being suitable for men only: ‘The President shall appoint Union Ministers using the following methods to assess their qualifications: obtain a list of suitable defense services for the minister of defense, home affairs and border affairs.”

In what is perhaps the most known clause of the constitution, Section 6 enables the “Defense Services to be able to participate in the national leadership role” by automatically taking 25% of unelected parliamentary seats. Given that men are overwhelmingly more represented in the military, this limits the development and advancement of women’s participation further, as there are only four female Tatmadaw representatives within this 25%.

Given the indoctrinate limitations, it is perhaps no surprise that Myanmar has the lowest female political participation in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). A lack of inclusion has resulted in a deeply flawed narrative that suggests women are not capable of leading. This is manifested in the institutionalized prioritization of males in public decision-making procedures, as can be seen in the constitution.

The suggestion that women are not educated enough to lead has also been contested. A survey by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) states that more women finish high school than men and also make up the majority of pre-bachelor-degree, Master’s and PhD courses.

Male politicians have also lied about their credentials, as was the case for the 2016 nominee poised as Myanmar’s incoming finance and planning minister, who admitted to having a fake degree.

In reality, women’s groups and individuals are deeply committed to peace-building and post-conflict reform, but they are extremely limited by the many discriminatory practices that have been institutionalized across various government and military divisions.

Rather than encourage internationally recognized mechanisms such as gender quotas and gender-responsive budgeting that would advance the rights of women, senior positions are denied to them based on biases ingrained in the constitution. As a result, few women are supported in their communities because of the acceptance of traditional roles, which suggest their place is at home – not in politics.

More platforms are needed to advance the concerns of Myanmar women, which include long-overdue changes to the constitution. Women’s organizations and advocates are the heart of communities and have long been consulted to solve divisions and disputes through compassion and compromise.

At local levels of leadership including in communities and within local and international non-governmental organizations and civil-society organizations, women hold positions of authority and use them with discretion to make positive change. Their voices and opinions on national reconciliation deserve recognition and legitimacy – notably their calls to reform institutional limitations that hold back their participation.

A lack of equality in political and social barriers only seeks to undermine the steps women have made thus far. With capacity-building workshops and leadership training being held across the country – particularly in preparation for the 2020 election – women have more than proved they are equipped with the skills to make positive change happen.

Peace actors should work toward improving the status of gender equality in peace-building support targets, which includes a system to track, monitor and evaluate these goals. Until then, the country’s leadership will continue to be questioned as the prioritization of the national agenda is contested by women’s groups and individuals across Myanmar.

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Maggi Quadrini

Maggi Quadrini is the communications officer at the Shan Women's Action Network (SWAN) in Chiang Mai, Thailand. She has worked on various media projects along the Thai-Myanmar border focusing on gender equality with local groups including the Karenni National Women's Organization and the Karen Women's Organization. Her work has been published in DVB, Asian Correspondent and Frontier Myanmar.