NAYPYITAW, Myanmar — Across the world, people are making efforts to increase the number of women in government in order to reduce gender disparities and help ensure that the voices and concerns of women are heard. UNDP has been working in Myanmar since 2016 after a 2015 report revealed that only 0.25 percent of local administrators were female. The UNDP is attempting to support the current female leaders in Myanmar as well figure out how to get more women across the nation involved in local government.
Myanmar splits rural areas into village tracts and cities into wards. Each village tract and ward has an administrator, with a total of 16,785 such leaders across the country. Since 2012, household representatives have elected these administrators rather than having government officials choose them. This is part of Myanmar’s process of connecting people to the government. Currently, there are only 101 elected female ward administrators among these districts.
Trends in Female Leadership
For women who want to become more involved in government, beginning at a local level is an essential step. This work enables them to get enough leadership experience that they can later obtain higher-level office. UNDP’s research on the female village tract and ward administrators (VT/WAs) revealed that elected female leaders often have an education and are middle to upper-class members. Many have even obtained a graduate degree. A lot of them also had a father or male family member who was previously a VT/WA, which perhaps was their inspiration for pursuing a role as a ward administrator.
The UNDP would like to help involve more lower-class women in government roles. There is a financial barrier, however, as VT/WAs do not receive a full salary. This institutional barrier prevents both lower-class women and men from obtaining these positions because they cannot afford to sacrifice a job that pays more for the sake of a leadership role. This class disparity could be decreased by increasing the salaries of local leaders or financially supporting lower-class women seeking this administrative role.
In addition to economic constraints, female leaders in Myanmar continue to battle the persistent view that women should not be in leadership roles. Particularly in rural areas, many men consider it to be shameful for their leader to be a woman. Because of this, they tend to over-criticize female VT/WAs. Despite these critics, reports show that communities tend to support female VT/WAs. Some village tracts and wards had found that their previous male administrators had leadership styles that involved less community engagement.
Benefits of Female Leadership
One of the primary benefits of having female leaders in Myanmar is their leadership styles. While the UNDP study revealed that the strengths of male leaders include straightforwardness and strict and clear decision-making, it also showed that they tend to listen to their communities less and are prone to being impatient and proud. The study identified female leaders as patient, strong negotiators who are hard-working and focused on conflict-resolution and long-term solutions. They are also good at bringing people together and less focused on personal power.
Additionally, all female VT/WA interviewees indicated that their goal is to represent all community members equally and address their needs. This is not to say that male leaders are inferior; rather, female leaders often bring different skills to the table that are also valuable and important in ensuring local government is as effective as possible.
UNDP Project in Rakhine State
UNDP has recently been working with U.N. Women on the Township Democratic Local Governance project in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. The project aims to address gender inequalities, increase female leaders in Myanmar and improve the power of local administration. Local administrators are crucial to providing basic services to people, particularly those living in poor communities. To help them accomplish this, UNDP is providing local leaders with discretionary grants to improve these services.
Daw Ohh Shwe, a female village tract administrator, mentioned bringing her community together to discuss how it should use the grant. They collectively decided that it should go towards the construction of a bridge and two roads and the renovation of a water pond. These changes will improve access to water and connect public services like health centers and schools, making them more accessible for the community, particularly those with less financial means.
The female leaders in Myanmar working with UNDP as a part of this project are using their strengths to negotiate, foster community engagement, resolve conflicts and focus on long-term solutions. All of these goals will improve the ways in which the local government is helping improve the lives of all people living in their communities.
– Sara Olk