Historically, women in Myanmar have had a unique social status in Burmese society. According to the research done by Daw Mya Sein, Burmese women “for centuries – even before recorded history” owned a “high measure of independence” and had retained their “legal and economic rights” despite the influences of Buddhism and Hinduism.
However, key findings indicate that apart from their involvement in civil society and NGOs, women are found to have very low levels of participation in various governance institutions operating at the subnational level in Myanmar. At the union level, women’s participation in elections, parliament, and the executive is very low. Also, women’s representation in the national-level legislature in Myanmar is extremely low compared to other ASEAN countries. The next lowest level of women’s representation in the national lower or single house is found in Malaysia, but even there women’s representation is almost 80% higher than it is in Myanmar.
Evidence suggests that women prioritize issues of health, education, sanitation and microfinance. Therefore, increasing women’s participation is likely to make governance decision-making more responsive to women’s concerns, and have general positive effects on the performance of governance institutions. Barriers to women’s participation in subnational governance in Myanmar are found to include:
• A lack of experience and certain skills
• Low bargaining power within households
• High time constraints
• Restrictions on women’s travel
• Traditional norms that ascribe authority to men over women
• Lack of acceptance of female leadership
However, enabling factors for women’s participation in Myanmar include:
• Relatively high level of gender equality informal educational attainment
• Deliberate actions of the Myanmar Government to increase women’s participation • Aspiration from women already in leadership positions inspiring and enabling other women to follow in their footsteps.
The government should seriously consider introducing a quota system that mandates a minimum proportion of women in certain elected positions, or on political parties’ candidate lists. International experience shows that the success of quotas in raising women’s interactive/participation, and ensuring that government becomes more responsive to women’s preferences, is variable. Therefore, any such possible policy needs to be designed very carefully, and be appropriately tailored to the Myanmar context. Various governance actors should work together to increase the availability of gender awareness training, and training in relevant specific skills, to women across Myanmar. Skills and leadership trainings offered by the government and non-government actors need to be made equally accessible to women as they are to men. Important considerations in this regard include ensuring that trainings are offered at times when women are able to attend, and if long distance travel is required that safe means of travel (and accommodation if needed) are provided.
Women’s participation in the political life of Myanmar is gaining attention from policy makers and researchers, but systematic data remains lacking. Women’s leadership has been found to be especially strongly resisted in the spheres of politics, religion, and in many traditional cultural activities/societies. A number of the barriers to women’s participation are starting to fall, making the possibility of increasing women’s participation more likely.