Myanmar Elections Usher in Unprecedented Number of Women Parliamentarians
March 2, 2016
Women in Myanmar were granted constitutional rights to equal political participation and the right to vote in 1932, quite early in comparison with other countries in Asia. Japan did not do so until 1945, China in 1949, and India in 1950. Yet the reality of women’s political participation in Myanmar negates earlier historical progress: from 2010 to 2015, women members of Parliament (MPs) constituted a mere 5.9 percent of all elected MPs in the Union Parliament (Pyidaungsu Hluttaw), the lowest in Asia. In the country’s 14 state and region parliaments, the number of women MPs was even lower, at 3.8 percent of elected MPs.
A dramatic increase in women MPs
The 2015 general elections have changed that situation dramatically, with a significant increase both in the number of women who contested seats and the number of women who were ultimately elected to office. Putting aside the 25 percent of seats still reserved for the military, the number of women MPs has increased to 14.5 percent of all elected MPs in the new Union Parliament, and to 13 percent in each of the lower (Amyotha Hluttaw) and upper (Pyithu Hluttaw) houses that make up the bicameral legislative body. These newly elected MPs, most of whom are from the opposition party of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, carry with them the public’s high hopes and expectations.
At the state and region level, women MPs now constitute 12.5 percent of all elected MPs. Myanmar voters also went to the polls to select ethnic affairs ministers, who represent an ethnic minority in a particular state or region where the ethnic minority population is at least 0.1 percent of the national population. Of the 29 ethnic affairs ministers elected, five were women.
Women MPs: a comparison between the outgoing and incoming Parliaments
Backgrounds of women MPs in the new Parliament
Age: Examining the background data for the new MPs, we can see that women MPs are younger than their male counterparts at a median age of around 50 years (compared to 55 for male MPs) in the Union Parliament and around 44 years of age in the state/region parliaments (compared to 49 for male MPs).
Educational achievements: Women MPs are much more educated than their male counterparts, with 93.9 percent holding at least the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree (compared to 77.7 percent of male MPs), and 22.7 percent who obtained post-graduate degrees (compared to 8.5 percent of male MPs).
In the states and regions, 90.5 percent of the 2016 women representatives have obtained at least a bachelor’s degree (compared to 66.8 percent of male MPs), and 10.7 percent have obtained post-graduate degrees (compared to 3.1 percent of male MPs).
Occupational backgrounds: In virtually every professional category, women MPs at the Union level are well represented or even surpass their male counterparts. Nearly a quarter of new women MPs in the Union parliament came from backgrounds in business (compared to 29.4 percent of male MPs); 16.7 percent came from professional political work (compared to 8.7 percent of male MPs); 15.2 percent worked in the medical field (compared to 9.2 percent of male MPs); and 6.2 percent came from the civil society sector (compared to 1.6 percent of male MPs).
The situation is similar in the states and region. Some 28.6 percent of women MPs come from a business background (compared to 33.9 percent of their male counterparts), while 14.3 percent come from an agricultural background (compared to 20.5 percent). There are fewer women MPs coming from the medical profession (2.4 percent compared to 6.6 percent of male MPs), but the number of female parliamentarians who came from the legal profession is much higher (11.9 percent compared to 4.9 percent of male MPs), as well as those coming from the education sector (19.0 percent compared to 10.1 percent of male MPs).
A new generation of women MPs in Myanmar
Considering the seismic shift in women’s political representation after the 2015 elections, it may be easy to overlook the 58 women who served as representatives to Myanmar’s Union and regional parliaments from 2011 to 2015. In 2015, The Asia Foundation conducted a study to better understand the challenges and constraints faced by women who served in Myanmar’s parliamentary bodies from 2011 to 2015, in the hopes that the lessons learned by this extraordinary first class of women representatives in the reform era would offer insights into how women can be better supported in the political arena. The findings are illuminating.
The representatives identified lack of support from women voters as the greatest obstacle hindering women from entering politics, with 82 percent of respondents saying that lack of support from other women “very much” discouraged them from entering politics, while only 51 percent of respondents said that lack of support from male voters was “very much” an obstacle.
Respondents also said that women’s own lack of confidence proved a significant barrier to entering politics (80% very much), followed by lack of education and financing (both at 62%). The responses by the women parliamentarians captured in our study suggest that women have internalized the embedded cultural values and social practices that undermine gender equality in Myanmar, making it more difficult for them to support other women to thrive in political life but also undermining their own confidence. The Foundation’s earlier national survey on civic knowledge and values conducted in 2014 also found that an astounding three-quarters of women respondents felt that men make better political leaders than women. Combined, these data indicate that social values and gendered norms in Myanmar are such that women can be the biggest obstacle to other women in terms of political careers, and that those who actually do enter politics feel keenly a lack of confidence in their work.
Yet this lack of confidence does not align with reality when it comes to the backgrounds and qualifications of male and women representatives to Union and regional parliaments, which clearly show that women are at least as qualified as, or even more so than, their male colleagues. The women representatives perceive themselves as being less qualified than they actually are, a perception reinforced by the lack of respect and trust afforded to women in positions of leadership by the society around them, which in turn influences their own faith in their ability to perform and to lead in politics.
The 145 incoming women parliamentarians (66 at the Union level and 79 in the states and region) have an even more impressive history of achievement in their professional lives than their predecessors, and their larger numbers can provide a critical mass for reshaping the working context for women in politics. Our report on the outgoing class of women MPs is now being finalized. The data and experiences we’ve collected from these pioneering women will provide incoming women parliamentarians with knowledge, insights, incentive, and inspiration about what they may be able to achieve together for the people of Myanmar going forward.
Kim N. B. Ninh is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Myanmar. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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