Women's Political Participation during Political Changes

Women’s Political Participation During Political Changes: Analyzing 2010 and 2015 Elections in Myanmar


Myanmar, an ethnically and culturally diverse land has undergone numerous different political landscapes including feudal, colonial, military rule, quasi-civilian rule, civilian rule, and recent democratic backsliding known as the military coup d’ etat in 2021. Women in Myanmar have long been actively participating as agents of change in shifting historical political changes such as university boycotts, strikes, anti-colonial and revolutionary movements, political parties, and elected legislative bodies. Many feminist scholars have widely noted that gender relations, power hierarchies, and norms are important factors in analyzing rapid political changes in a country (Al-Ali & Pratt, 2009). The term “political change” in this essay refers to transitions in a country’s leadership and government through elections. The primary focus of this essay is on the 2010 and 2015 general elections as there has been a military coup in 2021 before staging the winning government. As such transitions through elections are well-observed, little attention has been paid to women’s participation during these political transitions. Hence, this essay explores how previous electoral political changes have impacted women’s political participation, inclusion, and representation in Myanmar. This essay will argue that the statistical increase of women in the Parliaments did not effectively promote women in political leadership positions and advance the policy-forming and implementation of women-specific agendas during these transition periods.


Women’s Representation During the Great Transition Periods (2010-2015) 

Since 1990, the first reintroduction of political change through election was precipitated in 2010 under the military-drafted 2008 Constitution. That period was well-known as the end of decades-long military rule and a great transition to the quasi-civilian regime. However, the international community largely criticized as not being a free and fair election, including fraud and coercion by the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which consists of military generals led by President U Thein Sein (USDP) (Loring, 2018; Aung, 2023). Myanmar received significant international support in changing the socio-political and economic situation by lifting Western sanctions (Myint-U, 2019). Moreover, there has been growing attention on the relational aspects between gender and transitional politics led by feminists and women’s rights activists urging for bringing gender equality and women’s rights to the table and women began to be involved in parliamentary politics. Through the 2010 transitional election, only 20 women (3.71%) were elected to the National Parliament out of 3071 electoral candidates (Harriden, 2012; Latt et al., 2017). 

However, the 2012 by-election served as a promising improvement for women, reaching a total of 4.6% of women in elected seats in Myanmar’s Parliament (Loring, 2018). Out of 36 cabinet positions, women held only 8 seats at the national level, representing two women as Union Ministers at the Ministries of Education and Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement (Asian Development Bank, 2019). Other six women were appointed as Deputy Ministers in education, social welfare, labor, culture, health, and environmental conservation and the transition period fostered new opportunities and pathways for women to get engaged and involved in parliamentary politics and formal policy-making processes (Hedstrom & Olivius, 2023). Despite the significant increase of women in Parliaments and cabinet positions, Myanmar was relatively low compared to other neighboring ASEAN countries such as Thailand and Indonesia with reserving core numbers of women represented in government and political leadership positions (Aung, 2017).


Women’s Political Representation under Most Famous Pro-Democracy Female Leader

Unlike the 2010 generation, the 2015 general election received crowded applause from local, regional, and international communities for being free and fair (Loring, 2018). After the election, women secured 152 seats in Parliament, scoring 14.5 percent in a newly elected Parliament, which was triple the proportion of elected women parliamentarians in the 2010 election (Ninh, 2016). Although the proportion of women was close to almost 10 percent of all the elected seats in the Parliament, Myanmar was the lowest-ranking country compared to regional countries regarding women’s participation in national politics. This fact shows that the increase in the proportion of elected women members of parliament does not directly relate to the participation of women in higher key political positions. Concerning women in national key decision-making positions, the National League for Democracy (NLD), a landslide-winning political party led by Aung San Suu Kyi failed to bring more women into cabinet positions in the transition from quasi-civilian to civilian rule. As the military-drafted Constitution prevented her from becoming president as she married a foreigner, she created a specific role as “State Counsellor” with the support of her Parliament and also worked as the only Female Union Minister for Foreign Affairs and the President’s Office at the same time (Aung, 2017; Myint-U, 2019). In addition, two female Chief Ministers were appointed for Karen State and Tanintharyi Region for the first time in history, and one Deputy Minister for Health and Sport (Aung, 2017). At this point, although the number of women lawmakers has tripled under the civilian-backed NLD government after the 2015 election, the number of women in key decision-making posts in the government was noticeably low with a total of four posts compared to the military-backed USDP government in 2011. There was a considerable variation in the number of women parliamentarians in the State Parliaments; women scored 20 percent of total parliamentarians in Mon State whereas there were no women parliamentarians in the Chin, Karenni, and Rakhine States (EMReF, 2020). Having Aung San Suu Kyi alone as the only female leading figure in the Union cabinet and as head of government disappointed women’s organizations and activists striving to see more women inclusion in political leadership positions (Aung, 2017). 


Institutional Mechanisms and Policy-making Processes for Women’s Equal Participation

Although there was a significant increase in the number of female parliamentarians and their political activism through the 2010 and 2015 general elections, women were limited by patriarchal and militarized institutional barriers in implementing substantial and real change to participate in national politics and decision-making procedures (Loring, 2018; Hedstrom & Olivius, 2023). Myanmar acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) to adopt “quotas” as “temporary special measures” in 1997 and also the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action to advance women’s rights, equality, and representation (Oo, 2019; Aung, 2023; Asia Development Bank, 2016). Myanmar has also developed a National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women (2013-2022) as a comprehensive framework by making systemic changes, structures, and practices to ensure women’s equal participation in leadership and national political positions (Oo, 2019; Latt et al., 2017). Despite the numerical representation of women in politics increased, women-specific agendas and commitments such as constitutional amendments and the introduction of quota systems were less consistently focused and implemented by both governments. Section 352, one of the most prominent gender discriminatory laws in the 2008 Constitution limits equal participation and representation by stating “positions that are suitable for men only” (Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, 2008; Aung, 2023).

Moreover, one significant legacy of the military rule (the 1960s-2010s) remained as the 25 percent reserved seats in the Parliament in which women from military services were appointed to only a few numbers as parliamentarians throughout two general elections (EMReF, 2020). Such a quarter of the militarized quota system granted by the Constitution serves as a key systemic obstacle to increasing women’s political representation in Parliaments. Since the introduction of a gender quota system with a critical mass of at least 30 percent women have widely been suggested as an effective measure to ensure a gender balance in national politics, but both governments legally or constitutionally failed to enforce quotas during their term limits (Hedstrom & Olivius, 2023).

Ford (2017) also argues that seeing women in politics motivates women across different racial and ethnic groups, backgrounds, and ages as the impact of role model effect and reduces the sense of political alienation. The statistical increase of women in politics and claims of women parliamentarians supported Ford’s “role model effect” as one of the influencing factors to enter into politics (Ford, 2017). Nonetheless, Aung San Suu Kyi was a woman national figure, and de facto leader of the government, and her popularity did not mean or promote gender equality in political representation and participation (Gender Equality Network, 2017). 




To participate in politics for women in Myanmar has always been difficult due to successive systemic, cultural, and traditional aspects of a patriarchal society. The patron-client gendered political system hinders women from becoming patrons or leaders and defines women’s roles as political clients when women enter into male-dominated politics in Myanmar (Loring, 2018). From a systemic perspective, both governments have developed many international and regional policy frameworks and mechanisms for gender mainstreaming together with women’s rights organizations. Nonetheless, the real-world application and implementation of these mechanisms in the hands of governments were weak, requiring more sophisticated and affirmative actions. Failing to introduce a 30% of the quota system and lack of constitutional amendments have many impacts on bringing more women seated in Parliaments and key decision-making positions. Therefore, it is plausible to argue that the numerical increase of women in Parliament does not mean more women are taking place in key decision-making positions. Consequently, such an increase in the number of women Parliamentarians does not effectively promote women-specific agendas through institutional mechanisms. Last but not least, since this paper only looks at the limited systemic barriers for women to get involved in politics, another aspect of culture, tradition, and ideology regarding women’s roles requires a long process of change in the future. 



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