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Access to Justice

‘Vote with your head, not with your heart!’ Women in Myanmar and their right to vote.

By Sarah Mc Can, Development Programmes Manager, Trócaire Myanmar.

November 8th 2015 will mark a historic day in Myanmar as it will be General Election Day. For most of the country’s population, this will be the first time they will vote in what might be a free and fair election. While the 2010 elections heralded the end of over 50 years of dictatorship, those elections were unfortunately not considered free nor fair by the international community and most of Myanmar’s population.

2015 brings an opportunity for things to be different and better, and in particular, for women. Trócaire is working closely with two partner organisations, COM ( Charity Oriented Myanmar) and PTE (Phan Tee Eain) to ensure that women in particular are informed about their right to vote, know how to vote and are supported to exercise their democratic rights. In Taunggyi, the political capital of Shan State in North West Myanmar, there was a palpable sense of excitement at the Shan State Literature and Culture Hall on the morning of September 8th with women arriving from all around the area on their motorbikes and by foot to attend a PTE event on the elections. September 8th marked the official start of the election campaign. For the next 60 days, over 6000 candidates from 90 political parties will be busy campaigning and canvassing across Myanmar.

Voter education for women in Myanmar

Women attend a voter education workshop held by Trócaire partner PTE in Myanmar.
Photos: Sarah McCan

PTE seized the opportunity of the official start of the election campaign to host an event entitled ‘Vote for Women’ on women and their right to vote. Alongside keynote speakers, they also simulated a polling station and taught people how to fill out a model ballot paper. A large banner was hung across the front of the packed hall, proclaiming ‘To be equal, women should vote’. ‘Today there is no gender equality in Myanmar, therefore we are encouraging you all to pay special attention to this issue’ said Dr Kyaw Nyein Aye, director of PTE, as he opened the event. However the road ahead is a winding path. There are substantial barriers preventing women from voting. Most did not vote in 2010, instead asking their husbands or other men in their village or area to vote for them. In Taunggyi, every woman I asked about their experience with the 2010 elections all said the same-they had not voted in the 2010 elections. As one participant told me, ‘we used to ask our husbands to vote for us’. Another said, ‘because the polling station was so far away, we would ask one person to vote for everyone’.

Women are often not aware of their right to vote, even when they are, many are still afraid, due to the long legacy of dictatorship, and the ongoing civil unrest in Myanmar. According to Daw Sao Haymar Thaike, a passionate women’s rights activist in her 70s, ‘we do voter education work with women, but fear is there’. She is doing voter education in very remote areas and is also encouraging women ‘to vote with their head and not their heart’ so that people make informed decisions. Fear is not the only obstacle. Trócaire has done research on attitudes towards women and leadership in Myanmar and commonly held views are that women should be followers and not leaders, and many people believe that women don’t have the skills, confidence or knowledge to lead like men. In addition, women are often held back from participating in events due to housework and childcare. It takes time to overcome these barriers, but Trocaire is supporting PTE and COM is work-ing to do just this.

Literature encouraging women in Myanmar to exercise their right to vote in the upcoming election

Caption: Illustration from information leaflet informing women in Myanmar about their right to vote.

Alongside organising information events and trainings on women’s civil and political rights, COM and PTE have produced user friendly information leaflets showing women their right to vote and how to vote. Their creative images also support men to help by encouraging their wives or sisters to vote and by doing practical things like minding the children to allow women the time to get to the polling station. COM for their part are training young people through their mobile training programmes on voter education, with a particular focus on providing training to young women. These in turn share this information back in their own communities, like a ripple effect.

So far, for the 2015 elections, there are positive signs that things are changing, albeit slowly. In 2010, only 3.7% of candidates were women. In 2015, this has risen to 13.7% (813 women) from 94 political parties. So more women are running in the elections, and now hopefully with our support, more women will also vote. Trócaire’s own Country Director, Birke Herzbruch, also encouraged all the women in the Taunggyi hall; ‘casting your vote is your right, that you need to take up in order to change your society’. I would like to encourage all of you to spread the word, be brave and encourage other women to do the same’.

So, as the official election campaign starts, and as November 8th draws closer and the world’s attention focuses on Myanmar on Election Day, activities like these will hopefully encourage women to take up this call and feel empowered and able to do a truly historic thing in their community-exercise their human right to vote. Trócaire and its partners, PTE and COM are certainly working hard to make this a reality.


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