Aung San Suu Kyi may be the best-known female political figure in Asia, but Burmese women are still lagging far behind their regional counterparts when it comes to political participation.
Burma ranked 134 out of 143 in the world in terms of female participation in parliament, according to a new study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Women released to mark the 101st annual International Women’s Day. In the country’s lower house, just 3.5 percent of seats are occupied by women; in the upper house the figure stands at 1.8 percent.
Burma is by far the lowest ranking country in Southeast Asia, which as a region averages 17.9 percent participation, with Thailand at 15.6 percent, Bangladesh at 19.7 percent, China at 21.3 percent and Laos at 25 percent.
“Burma people still believe in a patriarchic system where only men are able to lead the country, not women,” Daw Tin Tin Nyo from the Burmese Women’s Union told DVB. “This mindset is very firm with many men and with women as well. Women groups really have to put pressure on decision makers to consider women’s participation as very essential.”
Even with Suu Kyi’s high profile, the National League for Democracy (NLD) will have their work cut out to challenge gender disparity in the 1 April by-election, with only 7 percent of parliamentary seats up for grabs. The NLD is still only fielding twelve female candidates out of a possible 48, while the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is presenting a meagre four.
But women’s groups are optimistic that Suu Kyi entry to parliament will be a positive step for women’s political rights. “We are very much hopeful and look forward that in the future and when she has the power she will consider including more and more women in decision making,” said Daw Tin Tin Nyo.
The democracy icon has been an outspoken advocate of women’s rights both in the social and political spheres. “I believe women play the more important part in our world because not only are they entering the professional world, they still remain the pillars of their homes and families,” Suu Kyi said at last year’s Global Women’s Rights Awards.
But Suu Kyi – an ethnic Burman from a privileged background – has an array of political challenges to navigate in the coming months and gender equality may not be top priority.
Women’s groups are adamant that she must work with women from all ethnic and social backgrounds in order to promote genuine empowerment. Women from minority groups still bear the brunt of political exclusion, especially in conflict-affected areas. The Karen Women’s Organization has complained of being kept out of the ceasefire negotiations led by the Karen National Union (KNU). Indeed there are only four women out of 45 on the KNU Central Committee itself.
“We need to empower more women in leadership roles,” Zipporah Sein, the first female General-Secretary of the KNU told DVB.
Women from the Muslim minority group the Rohingya, who are not recognised as citizens by the Burmese government and face additional discrimination within their communities, are likely to be the most vulnerable.
The new study notes slow advances in women’s political leadership around the world and the UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet has called for leaders to introduce quotas for women’s participation.