Peace negotiators urged to include more women
Women members of Myanmar’s ethnic political parties should be given a greater role in the male-dominated national peace process, experts say.
MYANMAR’S peace process – described by some as “a dialogue between men with guns” – involves far too few ethnic women, and closing the gender gap would increase the chances of the talks’ success, campaigners say.
Gender equality has long been a challenge in Myanmar, and many gender equality experts say the National League for Democracy-led government has not done enough to advance female inclusion in the political leadership: State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the only woman among the 25 ministers and cabinet members. Representation of women in legislatures across the country remains low, and the same applies to the peace process.
With the support of UK Aid, the Carter Center and the Women’s League of Burma held a three-day national conference for women of ethnic political parties (EPPs) last week. The conference sought to build on the idea that greater inclusion of the parties and their female members in the peace talks would increase their chances of success.
Those attending the conference discussed how to strengthen women’s involvement in the parties, promote women’s voices in the peace process, increase dialogue among the parties, and enable the parties to better represent civilian voices. On the third day, they were joined by the leaderships of 46 of the 52 parties to design action plans.
“Although women from ethnic minorities in Myanmar are disproportionately affected by the consequences of sub-national conflicts, including sexual violence, the voices of women are largely marginalised from the peace process,” Greg Kehailia, country director of the Atlanta-based non-governmental organisation Carter Center, said.
“Meanwhile, the role of political parties in the peace process has also been considerably limited. Exclusion of ethnic women and ethnic political parties intersects, stifles civilian voices in the peace talks and hinders the chances of success of the peace process. This contributes to a dynamic in which the peace process has largely become a dialogue between men with guns,” he added.
Lway Poe Ngeal, general secretary of the community-based Women’s League of Burma, emphasised that now is the time to “consider a review of the framework for the political dialogue in Myanmar’s peace process”.
The current framework, she argued, hinders the participation of ethnic civilians. “In a country as diverse as Myanmar, the role of EPPs in making the diversity and multitude of voices heard should not be underestimated.”
“The meaningful participation of women is very important for reflecting the voice of more than half of the population of Myanmar,” Lway Poe Ngeal said.
Social researchers say there are several reasons for the positive impact of women on peace negotiations. They include the fact that women may be exposed to a greater array of consequences of conflicts and women are more likely to be trusted by other citizens. Also, social research has revealed that there is a female factor in improving the dynamics within a group of people.
While it’s difficult to be certain about why women’s involvement increases the chances of success in peace negotiations, one thing we know is that it does, according to Mr Kehailia.
Those at the event said that to ensure a larger role for women in the peace process, it is imperative to strengthen stakeholders who are able to convey citizen’s voices to institutional actors. Political parties and civil society organisations are well-placed to gather and convey citizens’ views, but their own roles in the peace process have been partially frustrated.
Female involvement in the peace process is far below the 30 percent minimum recommended by the United Nations for gender equality. Women are also less represented in the governments and parliaments of ethnic states than in other regions.
Since ethnic political parties are already sidelined in the peace talks, their women members are struggling with what Mr Kehailia called “double penalties”: marginalised both as women and as members of an ethnic political party.
“Our assessment is that this is depriving the peace process of a fantastic opportunity to be more effective, but this situation could be proactively addressed with, very likely, immediate positive consequences for the peace process,” he said.
The peace process is not the only area where women’s participation is limited. Across the political landscape, there aren’t enough female voices being heard.
Women account for 52pc of Myanmar’s population, but they make up approximately 10.5pc of parliament seats at the national level and 9.7pc of seats in regional legislatures, including those appointed by the military. These percentages have more than doubled and tripled, respectively, compared to the previous government.
However, given the discrepancy between the percentage of women lawmakers and women in the overall population, their representation in policymaking is still strikingly low. Women MPs continue to face distinct challenges such as strong negative views of their leadership abilities in government and society, reflecting generations-old stereotypes.
Greg Kehailia, country director for the Carter Center, speaks at the conference for women of ethnic political parties.