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Women absent from new Burma cabinet

More than 30 people have been appointed to head government ministries in Burma but amongst that list is not a single woman, an omission that one female rights activist says is “not surprising at all”.

Reports of decisions on who will take the top posts in Burma’s new cabinet have steadily trickled out over the past two days as parliament approaches the end of its second week.

The heads of 34 ministries, two of which are new, were nominated yesterday, many of whom have now been formally confirmed by President Thein Sein. The majority are former senior army officials, and all of them are men.

“It’s all tied up with the male-dominated mechanism,” says Tin Tin Nyo, general secretary of Burma Women’s Union (BWU), which advocates for gender equality and female empowerment in the Southeast Asian pariah.

“In Burma discrimination against women is so subtle – sometimes people think there is gender equality but actually you can see that, in the past, there were no women in leadership roles.”

Women marginally outnumber men in Burma: according to the CIA World Factbook for 2010, the male/female sex ratio between the ages of 15 and 64 is 0.98, but that rises to 0.77 for over-65s.

Only a handful of the 1000-plus MPs elected to parliament in November last year are women, reinforcing the peripheral role that females have traditionally played in Burma’s policy-making process.

None of the three most prominent female candidates running in last year’s polls – Nay Yee Ba Swe, Cho Cho Kyaw Nyein and Mya Than Than Nu, all of whom are daughters of former heads of state during civilian rule in Burma and ran in the Democratic Party Myanmar – were elected to parliament.

“Women are not on the decision-making level, and the junta leaders don’t care or respond to the needs of women,” Tin Tin Nyo continues. “As long as this military government stays in control there will be no women in government.”

While numbers of Burmese women’s rights groups exist in exile, only one domestic body, the Myanmar Women’s Affairs Federation, purports to fight for gender equality.

The group claims to be an NGO but critics say it is far from that; instead, they believe, it was set up by the Burmese junta in the style of an NGO in order to gain legitimacy and overseas funding. It is also alleged to be dominated by the wives of junta officials, and has directed much of its attention to stemming the influence of female pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

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