Pressing for Progress in Democratizing Nations

Awza and ana are the Burmese words for influence and authority. Working in democratizing countries like Myanmar, I’ve witnessed the delicate balance between awza and ana become increasingly opaque as new actors enter the political landscape and seek to redefine the social fabric piecing the nation together. But, there’s also beauty in the blur. This is where the underrepresented and unheard voices have opportunity to emerge. It’s when the rules and terms are, to a degree, reset and where the hope for a better future springs.

What does this mean for women? With budding expertise in Myanmar affairs, I began exploring the concept of gender equality, politics, and rule of law within the infant democracy.

At an institutional level, Myanmar has checked the fundamental boxes. They’ve guaranteed equal rights in their constitution, ratified international conventions supporting gender equality like the Beijing Platform for Action and CEDAW, and adopted the National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women 2013-2022, implemented by the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement.

Even in the most advanced democracies, however, we know that equality in principle does not intrinsically translate to equality in practice and, in many ways, validates ignorance of the injustices facing the country. This can often lead to inadvertent gaslighting of women’s rights activists, hindering developing countries from resolutely seeking to reach gender equality.

As one of the few, if not only, women with a seat at the table during meetings with ministries and government officials, female representation in governance remains woefully low in Myanmar. Only six percent of decision-making positions at the state- and district-level are held by women; underrepresentation is similar within the ministries and judiciary. Still, even with the percentage of women representatives in the national parliament doubling to 13.7 percent in the 2015 elections, the share of female voice falls short.

While it remains important not to compare democratizing nations in the East to liberal democracies in the West (though women in countries, like the United States, are also alarmingly underrepresented in government), time truly is of the essence during the infant years of country democratization. This is when political and legal reformations lay the framework for sustainable social progress.

How can we press for progress? As corporate advocates, we make the gender equality agenda a part of our agenda.

When we discuss investing in public infrastructures like water and sanitation systems with political decision-makers, we also discuss how this lessens women’s domestic workload, providing them with time to generate a source of income for their families and pull themselves out of poverty.

When we talk about our plans for market entry, we also talk about our plans for ensuring that women have equal access to jobs at all levels of the operation, contributing to inclusive economic development that increases the country’s potential economic growth.

When we build a narrative around the role of gender equality in the country’s overall progress, we demonstrate how the gender equality agenda really must be an integral part of the national agenda.

To achieve gender equality, it must be far more than a blanketed declaration of intent. Gender equality must become inherent in all social and economic policies, fostering a culture that not only promotes, but also guarantees equal opportunity. By breaking the barriers to opportunity, women are empowered to forge their own paths in society. This opens the door for more women to bear political awza and ana over the future of their country. That is why we press for progress.