Parliament should have a certain quota of female representatives,” said a young woman. “And then what will you do if unqualified women get seats?” a man immediately responded. “But do you think all the men now in parliament are qualified?” retorted a second man.
That conversation took place in 2012 among Myanmar journalists during a training session on election reporting for by-elections that year. Three years later and those same arguments are reverberating around the country as more women than ever before – though still a relatively small number — challenge for seats in parliament and positions in the next government.
Political parties have responded to pressure and have boosted their numbers of female candidates running in November. In 2010 there were only 101 female candidates. This year, according to the Union Election Commission, nearly 800 women are standing among more than 6000 candidates in the national and state-level elections.
The ruling USDP says 7 percent of its candidates are women, while for the National League of Democracy – led by Myanmar’s most famous woman – the figure is 15pc.
Women presently make up just 4pc of all elected MPs in the two houses of the Union parliament. Only two out of 36 ministers are women. Some of the male-dominated parties say they want to address this gender imbalance but then complain they have difficulty recruiting well-qualified female contenders.
U Aye Ther Aung, a senior official of the Rakhine National Party, said, “Some are well qualified but they can’t leave their family behind. Some are not interested and some are interested but without having qualifications.”
A Myanmar Times survey of women candidates found varying degrees of “qualification”. But asked why they were running, all replied that they wanted to boost women’s rights.
Most of the candidates interviewed did not know what percentage of MPs were women and some were weak about their knowledge of parliamentary affairs. While some knew Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD leader, won a seat in 2012, they did not know her position in parliament (as chair of its committee on rule of law, peace and stability).
Daw Nyunt Nyunt, a USDP candidate in Kyauktada township for the Amyotha Hluttaw, or upper house, admits that she has a weak knowledge of parliament, does not watch its television channel and could not recall debates led by women. She could only name two women MPs.
Still she is catching up by reading hluttaw guides provided by the party.
Now 67, she retired from teaching six years ago and is supported by her two sons and a daughter. She was selected to run by USDP members in Kyauktada.