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Challenges and opportunities for women in Myanmar: a constitutional perspective
Myanmar

21st Century Panglong Peace Conference, Myanmar. Image: UN Photo

21st Century Panglong Peace Conference, Myanmar.

Image: UN Photo

Women in Myanmar are facing many challenges as a result of traditional perceptions, institutional barriers, and societal norms. These challenges range from a lack of equal job opportunities, to difficulties participating in nation building or the political arena1.

According to the 2014 national census, women make up 52% of the most economically productive age group (15-64). Guaranteeing equality for women is not just important for fulfilling the democratic norm of equality, but also for establishing lasting peace in the country and the development of the nation.

During the decades of civil war in Myanmar, women have been the victims of war crimes and continue to be one of the most vulnerable groups in conflicts.  Since the quasi-civilian U Thein Sein administration was sworn in back in March 2011, peace negotiations have a top priority. In October 2015, the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) was signed by 8 of the main 21 ethnic armed organizations. The NCA set a political roadmap for peace which includes constitutional change following a political settlement. The National League for Democracy-led government elected in 2015 has held two peace conferences, which in May 2017 resulted in the signing of the first part of the Union Accord. In every step of the peace negotiations, participation of women was critical to uphold the legitimacy and inclusivity of the agreement. It is even more important in setting up the political settlement process and constitutional frameworks to incorporate important issues for women and respect women’s rights.

Yet, participation of women in peace negotiations is still low2. Structural barriers, the 2008 Constitutional arrangements, the lack of inheritance rights in customary law, and religious norms make women a second sex in political and daily life. Challenges ahead for women in Myanmar lie not just in the national level political settlement process but also at the community level due to institutional constraints and the lack of capacity and awareness. Ma Soe Soe San, a regional coordinator of PEOPLE FOR PEOPLE, a local civil society organization based in the city of Sittwe in Rakhine State, says

“Back home, women’s involvement in politics is very low at around 1 %. There are some traditional perception barriers too. Some women vote male candidate rather than female candidate with the assumption that males can only govern well.”

International IDEA Myanmar’s MyConstitution programme aims to provide tools to support women in their ability to participate and analyze the constitution from the perspective of substantive gender equality. In February 2018, together with the Gender Equality Network and Triangle Women Support Group, International IDEA conducted a training on ‘Constitution Assessment for Women Equality’ (CAWE)3 for local trainers working on women rights and gender equality issues, as well as government representatives and university staff. The training was followed by an advocacy session which provided participants the opportunity to meet with Members of Parliament and discuss gender issues.

Ma Soe Soe San, reflected on her participation in the training:

“Before the CAWE training, when I read the Constitution, I just read it without fully understanding what it means. During the CAWE training, I came to realize the constitutional provisions related with women’s equality and learn how Constitutions of other countries protect women equality. I have found out that our Constitution is still very general and other Constitutions have specific provisions.”

It is essential for women in Myanmar to have a seat at the peace negotiations table, and assess the current constitutional frameworks to protect women’s rights and dignity. Women have the potential to be a great force in building peace and a democratic constitutional culture in Myanmar.

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1. According to a report on “Women Political Participation in Myanmar” released by the Asia Foundation in April 2017, women occupy only 13.7 per cent of all elected MPs in the new Union Parliament. That number (13.7 per cent) doubled compared to 6 per cent of women MPs in the previous Union Parliament. At the state/region level, 84 women were elected, tripling the number of women parliamentarians from 3.8% to 12.7%. This data are calculated by putting aside the 25 per cent of seats still reserved for the military.

2. Only 7 per cent of the 700 attendees of the 2016 January union peace conference were women. The number slightly increased to 13 per cent of 663 attendees in the August 2016 conference and 17 per cent of 910 attendees in the May 2017 conference.

3. The event was organized by the MyConstitution project, supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norway and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.

About the Author

Consultant
Myat Myat Mon