Aung San Suu Kyi

Make the views of women count in a more open Myanmar

Jo Baker hails the milestone of a global conference on female leadership

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 December, 2013, 6:18pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 December, 2013, 3:34am

While many in and outside Myanmar question the quality of the democratic space being opened by the government after decades of military rule, a surge of new ideas is being allowed in the public sphere. And among the beneficiaries, finally, are women.

Myanmar's most famous icon may be female, but through five decades of a very masculine military stranglehold on the country, women have been invisible at the levels where decisions are made.

Its activists have been, at best, ignored; at worst, imprisoned or killed. So, last week's high-level international forum on women's leadership - the first in the country and with the support of the government - signalled a change of sorts. Hosted by the Women's Forum for the Economy and Society, and attended by political icon Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde and a range of international chief executives, it gave diverse women in the country one of their first chances for unfettered debate.

In doing so, Myanmar women were brought into one of the more divisive issues in developing democracies: quotas for women. Quotas are a temporary tool used to balance equality of opportunity, by allocating a percentage of positions to women in sectors from politics to peacekeeping. Critics claim they can lower the bar of ability or talent in a field and lead to the tarnishing of legitimately qualified women; advocates counter that, wielded well, they can break through institutional barriers, change minds and challenge stereotypes.

Yet, even though quotas featured in a government strategic plan for women's empowerment, launched in October, there has been little healthy debate on the issue. It was therefore incredibly heartening to hear the issue discussed at the public conference.

There, Suu Kyi's more conservative stance - softer pro-women measures such as boosting education for girls - was countered by questions asked by women from different sectors.

Will pro-women education policies be enough to change the fact that more than 95 per cent of Myanmar's lawmakers are male? Or will they increase the number of female leaders across the country's 66,000 village wards, from a reported 10?

How can ethnic minority women bring their needs and priorities into negotiations on the conflicts that see them displaced, disenfranchised and abused? And what role can and should the senior executives of Total, Accor, PepsiCo - all present at the conference - play in promoting women's equal rights to jobs, credit and resources as they take advantage of the country's opening?

The view of the IMF chief - notable in its contrast to the view of Suu Kyi - made no small dent in the conversation. From her experience, said Lagarde, quotas allowed talented women to take a step that, because of discrimination, was often far too large for them to take alone. Her view will by now be wending its way into conversations throughout many of Myanmar's 14 provinces.

Myanmar's government claims it has started to progressively implement gender equality and women's rights throughout the country, and this conference was indeed the latest in a recent series of positive steps. Their support and attentiveness to events such as these - including at the most local of levels -will be critical in keeping such a process valid and sustainable.

Jo Baker is a researcher and writer with a focus on human rights and gender in Asia. She has worked with UN Women, the International Crisis Group and the Asian Human Rights Commission, among others