In late 2020, Myanmar will hold its second general election since the introduction of a civilian government in 2011. With the election deciding more than a thousand seats in the country’s legislative bodies, national attention is increasingly drawn to next year’s vote — but recent progress of municipal election reform is just as significant for strengthening democracy across the country.
Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) held its first municipal election based on universal suffrage in March 2019. Previously, the 2014 municipal election was based on a household suffrage system, where each household had one vote. This left women and youth particularly detached from the voting system, whilst women’s representation in local municipal governance remains strikingly low.
Municipal governments are the closest layer between the public and the government. It is the space where the public’s trust in democratic processes can be built and directly provides services for the people. Building this trust requires local governments that mirror the diversity of their communities. The participation of women in decision-making at the local level brings a valuable viewpoint to inform citizen outreach and policymaking; enhancing accountability and responsiveness at the local level.
Despite the National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women (2013-2022) and the re-establishment of the Myanmar National Committee for Women Affairs in 2012, progress continues to be slow for improved female representation. In the March YCDC elections, out of the 233 candidates running for election in March 2019, 44 were women (approximately 16%). There are now 26 women (25%) from among 79 township committee members in Yangon.
Women Committee Members of the YCDC attend trainings to improve their skills including public outreach, moderation and digital literacy.
Challenges facing women in local politics
To support and strengthen the role of women in elected local government, DRI and the New Myanmar Foundation (NMF) are delivering a series of trainings with 26 elected Women Committee Members of the Yangon City Development Committee. The trainings will help committee members conduct public consultation workshops with their constituents and establish a Women Councillor’s network.
These activities are the results of a needs assessment undertaken in October 2019 to understand the concrete concerns and training needs of women council members. The candidates expressed their need for trainings in public speaking, leadership skills, and the need for women peer network for inspiration and effective communication among themselves, as well as with their constituents.
According to the survey, the key challenges facing women in local politics is their ability to organize effective public hearing meetings within their constituencies. The councillors also expressed that women in local politics are not seen as capable as men and receive less respect from their constituents. They even feel isolated from spaces where male councillors discuss local issues.
Participants used simulations of real-life policy challenges to put their skills in to practice, as well as learning how to dealwith specific challenges that women face in politics.
YCDC Women Municipal Members Trainings in Yangon
Six months after the March elections in Yangon, DRI held a training for the 26 women councillors on 2 to 4 November 2019. This was an opportunity for women councillors to exchange on the new Standard Operating Procedures for township officials and learn the basics about YCDC law, budgeting, as well as strengthening their public outreach, digital literacy and moderation skills using interactive simulations drawing on real-life policy challenges. Participants also engaged in sessions on how to overcome specific challenges facing women in local politics and how to organise a town hall meeting to engage with their constituents.
“This event gave me so much strength. I was somehow depressed before because I was quite new to this field and had limited knowledge on laws and procedures and, after these three days I feel confident and hope to do my job more effectively as elected official,” said one female municipal committee member.
The women committee members met again to create the peer network on 23 November. During this meeting, women members identified the local issues they want to solve together, such as drainage issues, the need for a better rubbish management system and sanitation systems.
In 2020, the women councillors will put their skills to practice with NMF through nine town hall meetings to be held in coordination with the YCDC committee and Yangon Region Cabinet.
The women councillors presented with certificates following the three-day training session.
The training was conducted as part of the STEP Myanmar Project funded by the European Union.
The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.
This story was written by Su Wai Phyoe and Flora Cresswell.