- By Professor Chaw Chaw Sein, Ph.D. (University of Yangon)
It was such a pleasure and an empowering, eye-opening experience to have had an opportunity to interact with eighty-six prominent women leaders (parliamentarians, media representatives, domain experts, NGO leaders, creative individuals, and grass-roots workers) from nine South Asian countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, at the 10th South Asia Women’s Network (SWAN) that was held in New Delhi from 31st August to 2nd September 2019. This year’s SWAN forum highlighted the theme of “Gender Empowerment for Sustainable Development: Issues and challenges facing the Women of South Asia.” It aimed to overcome the challenges and obstacles facing the women of South Asia, irrespective of their religious beliefs and ethnicities. The two-day conference focused on following three areas:
1) A women-led strategy for fast-tracking improvement in malnutrition challenge,
2) women’s unpaid work and their empowerment and
3) building a gendered media as agents of change in South Asia.
I was positively surprised and proud to discover that Myanmar has moved up to the top ten Asian countries list for gender equality according to the 2018 Global Gender Gap Report while China was ranked 103 and Japan ranked at 110. This prompted me to reflect and explore why Myanmar women gender inequality gap has been narrowed in recent years. Changing political landscape as the result of Myanmar political transition since 2011 may have contributed to this shift towards gender equality. The new political environment has created a space for all sectors within Myanmar society to improve gender equality in political, economic, health, security, academe, and media arena. Myanmar government and civil society had collaboratively stepped up their efforts to address gender inequalities in education, health, economic opportunity and to advance women into leadership roles and decision-maker levels. These efforts had resulted in increased women’s participation in formation of new political parties, participation in election as candidates or election observers, and actively taking part in countrywide peace processes. The remarkable improvement has been in the legislative branch of the government. The women representation has increased from 5.9% in 2010-2015 to 14.5% in 2016-present (more than doubled) in the Union Parliament, while it has increased from 3.9% to 12.5% (increased by three folds) at the State/Region Parliaments.
Although many Myanmar women recently have become more active in politics and their representation has increased remarkably, it remains far from the 30% target due to entrenched cultural perspectives and traditional practices in Myanmar society. As such, many impediments and obstacles still exist for women either as a political candidate or party member due to cultural perspectives and traditional expectations. Although the Myanmar Constitution legally allowed women to run for elections and to form political parties, they face deep-seeded cultural impediments — which restrict their mobility to successfully conduct political campaign — such as party officials’ restriction on women candidates to travel to areas that are deemed insecure, disapproval from family, friends of women’s unchaperoned travel for political rallies/activities, and social stigma within the community for traveling together with men away from home for election campaigns. Additionally, traditional expectation of women’s over-burdened domestic responsibilities (always unpaid and undervalued) also hinders women’s ability to devote 100% of their efforts on their political careers. These cultural norms and values create tremendous challenges and obstacles for women to freely participate in politics. As Myanmar emerged from half-century of isolation and increased engagement with many people from around the world, Myanmar people’s cultural perspectives and traditional practices are broadening and transforming although it appears slow at times. Hopefully, the next generation of Myanmar women will be able to overcome these challenges and impediments while maintaining the positive aspects of Myanmar unique traditions and culture.
The forum discussed the linkages between undervaluation of women’s unpaid work and its adverse impact on women’s status in society. Women in many South Asian societies generally are overly burdened with performing domestic household responsibilities to cater to basic needs of the family, taking care of children and parents, cleaning, cooking, sending kids to schools, managing the daily life etc. They rarely have time for recreation and building meaningful careers. When women have careers, they are double-tapped. In Myanmar, most women who work in the public sector are expected to perform unpaid work both in the work place and in their home. Unpaid work for women in public sector is “overtime” which means working beyond office hour during weekdays and working in the weekends. This put tremendous stress on the career women as they juggle between the overtime unpaid office work and the unpaid housework. Since men do not have the same pressure as the women, this impedes women’s ability to move up within the organization.
Despite improved gender equality recently experienced by Myanmar, the Myanmar society is still a male dominated one. Religious beliefs, traditional practices, and cultural perspectives have profound influence on Myanmar families who paid significant degree of respect to the elders and monks and privilege male member of the society. The girls are conditioned and trained from early age to devote their lives to serving the family and monks while the boys are treated like princes and made to believe that they are more divine (superior) than females. These early conditioning embeds habits in girls, later women, to feel obligated to selflessly serve their families and neglect or minimize their desires for meaningful careers. These types of cultural beliefs and traditional practices appeared to plague other South Asian countries as well according to the participants from those countries. In fact, the level of gender inequality in almost all the South Asian societies are higher than in Myanmar. Therefore, the 10th SWAN Conference called to “raise our sons more like our daughters” because transformation of the cultural perspectives and traditional practices start at home. Although it is wonderful for Myanmar to be recognized in the top ten countries list for gender equality in the Global Gender Gap Report, however, it is more important and absolutely crucial to include women and leverage their talents and wisdom in order to build peaceful, progressive, and prosperous Myanmar today. In fact, inclusion of women in all sectors might be the “secret weapon” to successfully attack and tackle many complex and persistent challenges Myanmar is facing today in the globalized world. I challenge the Myanmar men, who now hold the power in Myanmar society today, to realize the women as equal partner in all aspects of human society, to appreciate unique capability they provide, and to expand human resources needed to take Myanmar forward. It is time for the Myanmar society to recognize and to value the vital and invaluable contributions women had and can made towards the nation and state building process and consequently contribute to achieving the UN SDGs fifth goal, gender equality.
– Global Gender Gap Report 2018, https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-gender-gap-report-2018
– Tenth Annual Conference of the South Asia Women’s Network (SWAN)
– Women’s Political Participation in Myanmar, Asia Foundation, April 2017