South China Morning Post (Op Ed), 12 December 2013

Myanmar’s first high level international forum for women showed a surge of new ideas being tolerated by its government. Of the most impactful was in the debate on quotas – with global female icons Aung San Suu Kyi and Christine Lagarde on either side.

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Myanmar’s most famous icon may be female, and yet women have been absent in decision-making throughout its five-decade military stranglehold. 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 – was a high profile suggestion of change.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 CEOs, it gave diverse women from Myanmar one of their first chances for unfettered public debate – including with Daw Su Kyi herself.

In doing so, Myanmar women were brought full force 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 that 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 are one of few ways to break through institutional barriers, change minds, and challenge stereotypes.  (Earlier this year the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) reported a significant increase in women MPs during the 48 elections in 2012, and put this largely down to their use.)

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Yet despite the recommendation for quotas by the UN’s independent expert on Myanmar as well as the Myanmar government itself in a strategic plan on women’s empowerment (launched in October) – and strong results from the use of quotas in other fast developing neighbours, such as India[1] – the country has yet to host a healthy range of debates on  the issue – the kind that lead to locally owned decisions on where and how quotas are used.

It was therefore incredibly heartening to see the issue’s public debut at the conference, at full force.  In a compelling sight, Aung San Suu Kyi’s more conservative stance – softer pro women measures such as boosting education for girls – was countered with confronting questions by women from a range of sectors. Why should there be a 25% quota for the military in politics, but none for women? Will pro-women education policies really be enough to change the fact that more than 95% of Myanmar ‘s lawmakers are male – and across its 66,000 village wards, just ten reportedly have women leaders?  How can ethnic minority women bring their needs and priorities into negotiations on the conflicts that see them displaced,disenfranchised, and horrendously abused? And what role can and should the CEOs of Total, Accor, Pepsi Co – 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?

Christine LagardeAung San Suu Kyi The view of the IMF Chief – notable in its contrast to Daw Suu Kyi – made no small dent in the conversation. Quotas should be complemented by other measures, like flexi-time and training programmes, and be removed when enough momentum is built, she said. But they allow many talented women to take a step that, because of discrimination, is often too far large for them to take alone. And in this way Myanmar’s ‘cultural barriers’ Lagarde insisted, “can be shaken and moved.” Her reasoning will by now be wending its way in conversations, no doubt, across many of the country’s 14 provinces.

Myanmar’s government claims that it has started to progressively implement gender equality and women’s rights throughout the country, and this conference was indeed the latest in a very recent series of positive steps. Their support and attentiveness to events such as these – not only international and regional, but at the most local of levels – will be critical in keeping such a process valid, and sustainable.

 

 


[1] Ten years ago women made up less than five per cent of elected leaders in India’s panchayats, today, more than 40 per cent of local council leaders are women, and the perspectives of men and women in those villages about the value of girls, and the value of their education, has measurably improved. Read a case study I researched on quotas for UN Women.