Tuesday, 13 June 2017
In 2012, I was a member of an Australian delegation to Myanmar. It was an exciting time, with a real sense of expectancy for change. Elections would be coming. They would be taking place, and there could be change. In Yangon, large posters of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy were openly displayed. In a nation with the lowest level of female representation in the region, there was encouragement for men and women to become involved, to take action and to be part of a new time in government.
Already a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the CEDAW, and the Beijing Platform for Action, in 2001 Myanmar committed to the UN Millennium Development Goals, including goal 3, which states: 'to promote gender equality and empower women'. In 2015, Myanmar joined over 150 nations to continue the commitment to a better world through the 2030 development agenda and 17 sustainable development goals, building on the work from 2001. Again, there is a specialist goal, goal 5, of achieving gender equality and improving the lives of women and girls. This goal, as was with the MDGs, includes a special focus on the participation of women in government.
The number of women MPs has more than doubled in Myanmar's newly popularly elected parliament that was elected in 2015. The new-look parliament includes 64 women in elected seats across the upper and lower houses at the national level, which is 13 per cent of elected seats, up from 6.2 per cent. Across the 14 state and regional parliaments, 83 women were elected. The majority of the women were from Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. Six women were elected from four ethnic nationality parties: the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, the Arakan National Party, the Ta'Arng (Palaung) National Party and the Zomi Congress for Democracy.
This doubling of women MPs is a really important step towards strengthening the voice of women in Myanmar. However, it still leaves Myanmar with the second-lowest percentage of women in national parliaments across ASEAN countries, above Thailand, a close neighbour, which has the lowest level at 6.1 per cent. Of all the 18 ministerial positions, only one is held by a woman, The Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi. This result places Myanmar 159th on the IPU list of women in parliament. For the record, Australia is No. 50.
We know that this is a particular challenge for the women who have been elected in Myanmar and who have come in with the new election. They have a range of skills, and they are articulate, courageous and highly competent women. Many of the women actually learned their skills through involvement in Myanmar's growing women's movement, raising new hopes for laws and policies that promote gender equality. That is a position to which the government has made public its commitment: the new Myanmar will have a focus on gender equality. The women who have been elected to parliament are passionate advocates for democratic reforms, peace and gender equality.
The Asia Foundation has done a large-scale work across the issues of gender inequality in Myanmar and also the issues around the election of women in that state. They have come up with a number of surveys and research projects looking at the things that could impact on the number of women who are being elected in that country. Certainly, one of the strongest elements put forward by women who had been elected was that they needed to have the support of women voters. Actually, I belong to an organisation that has as its theme 'When women support women, women win', and this is no more true than it is in Myanmar. It has been identified that there needs to be a growth of awareness of the electoral process, of government and also of the fact that people should become more involved and be confident in their participation. Respondents also said that women's own lack of confidence proved a significant barrier to entering politics, followed by education issues and financing—issues that we hear in most countries are the barriers and obstacles to women wanting to become involved in politics.
There have been studies about why it is important to have women in parliament, and a number of recommendations have been made about what can support growing confidence. The International Women's Development Agency, IWDA, has made a partnership with a local Myanmar women's organisation, Akhaya Women. IWDA is the leading Australian agency entirely focused on women's rights and gender equality in the Asia-Pacific, and it has partnered with women's rights organisations in Myanmar and around the Thai border for over 20 years. Akhaya Women is an extraordinary group that is based around looking at women's true equality, looking at policy advocacy and promoting women's political participation and advocacies for laws and policies that promote gender equality. The Akhaya Women became internationally known for a wonderful project that was headed by one of their leaders, Daw Htar Htar. This project was a whistle campaign on city buses to ensure that women who were suffering sexual harassment in the public transport system would be able to have whistles with them and immediately blow them, scaring the person who was harassing them—and everybody else on the bus. Nonetheless, this program was a very practical response to an important personal and social issue.
Now we have these two wonderful organisations—the International Women's Development Agency and Akhaya Women—looking at ways they can support women in parliament in Myanmar. They are now partnering under the Women's Action for Voice and Empowerment—the WAVE program—which is a program funded by the government of the Netherlands. The WAVE program is a $19 million, five-year program across the Asia-Pacific which brings together partners from diverse countries and regions to help build innovative responses to challenges in women's civil and political participation. Through this partnership, Akhaya Women and IWDA are working to develop an effective and responsive mentoring program that links women from the newly formed Myanmar parliament—newly elected women who have this passion and excitement about their new responsibility—with women from Australia who have equal passion and commitment but maybe a little more experience in the political sphere. Through a mentoring program that has now been established and funded, we have an opportunity in this parliament to be part of this process to engage with women in Myanmar to ensure that we share knowledge and experience, joy and stories and all the things that make us strong.
I went back to Myanmar earlier this year as part of this program, and with me were Dr Lesley Clark, who was a parliamentarian in the Queensland parliament; Penny Wright, who we know was a senator in this parliament; Judith Graley, a member of the Victorian parliament; Ann Sudmalis from the other place; and Janelle Saffin, who has done so much work in Myanmar over many years, also joined our program. Unfortunately, Lisa Chesters, who is the member for Bendigo and was also scheduled to go, could not because she had an injury. We went to Myanmar to meet up with the women from that parliament who had identified that they want to be part of a program working with us—sight unseen, I am afraid!
When we got there we met with Nan Moe, Nan Htwe Thu, Chris Htun, Nang Khin Saw and Khin Saw Wai. Each woman had been elected to represent their electorate in the new Myanmar parliament. It was quite a stressful first introduction, where we were able to introduce ourselves and then the women from Myanmar had the opportunity to choose with whom they would like to work. We sat there nervously waiting while the women made up their minds which one of us they were going to choose. It was quite daunting, actually. It was a bit like one of those programs on TV. Nonetheless, Khin Swe Lin was the woman who said that she would not mind working with me into the future. It was an exciting moment to sit and talk with Khin and find out about her background and how she ended up being a first-term parliamentarian in the Myanmar parliament.
Khin comes from Chin state in the northwest, a remote region which borders Bangladesh and India. Through interpreters—my complete lack of any Myanmar language has made it a little bit more difficult to communicate—Khin described how mountainous her area is, with poor transportation links, bad roads and a lot of isolation. Her stories about what she had to go through to electioneer were quite harrowing. No way was there adequate transport. Cars or any kind of vehicle could not travel easily in that region. Khin was often walking to remote villages, because the population is scattered, to talk about the election and about why people should become engaged. She is a passionate advocate for her region. She tells me that the educational opportunities there are limited. There are no universities in her state. Anyone who wishes to go on to higher education has to leave home. There are very poor health facilities. She is completely dedicated to ensuring that the people in this area receive effective services into the future. At the moment, Chin state is rated as one of the poorest, if not the poorest, states in the whole of Myanmar. So there is a definite challenge there.
Three women were elected from the Chin state in this election. Two of them were from the National League for Democracy—Khin Swe Lin, who is working with me, and Ni Shwe Lian—and another woman from one of the ethnic parties. They have built a friendship amongst themselves, because just to get to and from the capital to sit in parliament is an extraordinarily long journey. These women have had to make significant decisions as to why they are changing their lives to ensure that they can represent their communities. The mentoring program is determined on the basis that women can share skills and knowledge and learn together in a way that will provide the kinds of things identified as being needed by the Asian foundation program, and that is to build confidence to ensure that people have an understanding of what the role of a parliamentarian is.
I was lucky enough to visit the parliament in Myanmar a couple of times. The sheer size of the parliamentary gatherings there were quite overwhelming. The Naypyidaw, the new capital, is one of the most amazing cities in the world, and it has been identified as such by UNESCO. After sitting in the parliament and seeing the hundreds of parliamentarians gathered together in the upper house, I can understand why Khin said that when she first came to parliament she was completely overwhelmed.
While visiting there we also talked about what motivated her to run for parliament. She said that working in the National League for Democracy, the Aung San Suu Kyi party, gave her the inspiration that she could genuinely make a difference. In her small room—the parliamentarians in Naypyidaw live in barracks, quite a distance from the very luxurious parliament house—she showed me her proud possession of a very large photograph of herself and the lady on the day that she was sworn into parliament. She keeps this photograph with her to maintain her inspiration and to keep her active and keen to be part of the national parliament.
After the initial time we spent together in Myanmar, we now have had the opportunity to set up a communication network through emails. It is one way of keeping in touch. It is slow because we have to rely on formal interpretation of everything we say. Nonetheless, through photographs, messages and questions we have been able to build up a relationship. One of the key issues that Khin wanted to know more about was effective public speaking. Although in her professional career she had been a teacher, the concept of standing in front of parliament and also in front of her constituents, talking with them, making an argument or advocating on their behalf was a challenge, and public speaking was something that she sought to know more about. We were able, through the networks that we already have through different groups, to send her some information, which has now been spread to a lot of the women who have been involved, on tips about how to make speeches, research speeches, and how to try very hard to stay relevant at all times, which is a point that we pointed out is very important when working in this place.
We are looking at the ongoing relationship moving into the future. With the great support of the Australian government—and I really want to put on record my appreciation to the foreign minister, Ms Bishop, and also to DFAT—they have agreed to fund a trip of the parliamentarians and the group from Akhaya Women to come to the Australian parliament in the first sitting week of August. I also want to put on record, Mr President, my appreciation for your support in helping to welcome the women to the parliament and to ensure that they have an opportunity to see the wonders of this parliament: the way it operates, the tremendous support services we have here through our library and through the PEO and to learn how this particular parliament operates so we can share the skills and resources we have to build a mutual understanding and to ensure that, when women do support women, women become stronger and are then able to fulfil the goals that they have set themselves.
When Khin was first elected, she was interviewed—this happens even in the regional areas of Myanmar when someone gets elected—by a local group to find out how she wanted to go in her new career. She told the election newsroom that her focus would be on gaining rights for ethnic populations, but that she would also work on issues that affect women. She said:
As we face discrimination, I plan to work on implementing laws that serve to uplift women.
This was a first-term newly-elected woman who was saying that she wished to be part of the new parliament and work on laws that serve to uplift women. By actually making laws to uplift women, she would be working to fulfil the commitments that Myanmar has made internationally. As we said, they are part of the CEDAW commitment; they are also part of the Beijing platform for action, which talked about the rights of women to be involved in their communities, the rights of women to lead their communities and the commitment to the sustainable development goals. Goal 5 talks about the absolute commitment to true gender equality: to ensure that women, no matter where they are in the community of Myanmar, will have access to the best possible education, will have access to health, will be able to engage fully in their communities and to free themselves from the almost confronting poverty that exists in places like Chin state.
Khin has made the decision that she wishes to be part of that action to promote women in her parliament. She is totally committed to ensuring that the young women and the young men in Chin will be able to have an effective education, that she will be able to make sure that the poverty in that state will be alleviated, that in the future, through the next round of elections in Myanmar when they happen in the next few years, even more people will be involved in the electoral process, and that they will have the confidence and understanding of the process. Of those numbers we talked about—in the last election 13 per cent of women in the upper and lower houses and 64 per cent of women elected—we hope that the three women who have gone to Naypyidaw representing Chin in the last election, in the next election will have many more women going with them. In fact, we will see that when women support women, even across the seas between Myanmar and Australia, women will win.