Thursday, July 27, 2017

Election 101: ‘She Leads’ voter education for women in Kayah

The voter list on the boards has been checked – the ballot papers carefully stamped and dropped into sealed boxes – and the women are now queuing up to have their fingers marked with the indelible blue ink that shows they are participants in Myanmar’s move toward democracy.

Two women take part in an election simulation program as part of voter training in Kayah State on September 8. (Fiona MacGregor/The Myanmar Times)Two women take part in an election simulation program as part of voter training in Kayah State on September 8. (Fiona MacGregor/The Myanmar Times)

It’s two months until the country is due to hold the election that has been heralded as the first legitimate such poll in decades, but in Kayah State’s capital Loikaw a group of women are getting some practice in early.

The election simulation exercise on September 8 is part of the She Leads training program which is running classes for over 500 women in all 14 states and regions throughout the country. The aim is not just to provide voter education to those who attend, but also to give participants the tools and confidence to spread voting information with others back in their communities.

This group of around 30 women, mostly in their early-to-mid-20s, is taking part in the second of three modules, each lasting three days. There is already a strong sense of camaraderie.

“I am a first-time voter. Now we are doing this training about voting we are sisters. I’d like to be an election observer,” one young woman tells the rest of the group.

They are outside in the grounds of the Anglican church where the classes are about to start for the day. The women have been asked to form a circle and throw a ball to one another and as they do so to share something they have learned from the program so far. Some of their answers highlight how little knowledge they had of the voting process before this.

“I’ve learned it’s really important to make sure I use the [ballot] stamp properly. If we don’t care the stamp could go anywhere so we need to make sure it goes in the right place,” says another young woman.

Other responses show how the classes are helping the women gain understanding of the democratic process.

“I learned to ask what the candidates stand for and to learn about that and then decide how much we can trust them,” says a slightly older woman.

The training program, implemented by national organisation Yaung Chi Thit, with the support of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, is said by its organisers to be “designed to help address the lack of women’s leadership in political and decision-making processes at all levels”.

The participants have some specific concerns: “Should I vote for the party or the candidate?” a number of them ask, in a nod to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party slogan.

“What happens if I don’t vote for an ethnic party?” Such a question highlights the ethnic diversity in Kayah State where at least five different ethnic parties are competing and leaders hold considerable influence in their local areas.

The trainers are clear. “Well, that is your choice. But one vote can make the difference between who the leader [of the country] will be so you have to think about that too.”

It’s a simple message, but in a country where political power has been brutally gained and held with military backing, and fought back against with armed resistance, it’s a point that needs reinforcing.

As well as focusing on the practicalities of voting and the basic electoral process, the participants are also encouraged to have confidence in their ability and right as women to be involved in politics and to share the information they learn with others in their communities. They are asked to consider ways they already have influence and negotiation skills and how those can be adapted to their political engagement.

The women involved say the information they learn on the course gives them not just personal power, but standing in their local communities where gender-based traditions means women have often been marginalised in the political sphere. Some of the participants from remoter areas walked for up to a day to reach the training centre.

“In our area most people don’t have interest in politics, even the men are most interested in farming,” says Christine, 23, from Dolasaw village. “I’d feel a little bit shy to talk to men about politics, because they ask many questions and if you don’t know the answers they will [ridicule] you because you are a woman,” she says.

“But after this course I feel I can meet with people and talk to them.”

Like many in Kayah State, she is Christian. She now plans to use women’s groups she’s already involved in through the church as an opportunity to spread information about the election and how to vote.

Her friend Anna Naw Wai Phaw, 25, from Ngwe Taung village, is clearly enthusiastic about the training and is keen to start spreading the voting message. She’s already involved in a project to promote gender equality in her area, and although she’s received mixed responses on the issue, that’s not put her off from her determination to encourage women to get involved in the electoral process.

“Last week I went to three houses and talked to people about gender issues, men, and violence and peace. They accepted some things, but not others. Nowadays people accept that women can enter into politics. They do not accept if a woman became president, because they say women are very busy at home.”

But, she adds, she wants people to know that “men and women can be equally involved in politics and if you take men’s strengths and women’s strengths you get the benefit of both”.

Both women are keen to learn “important information” they can tell people back in their communities: how the different houses of parliament are made up; who can vote, and who can’t; who is eligible for advance voting – and who isn’t. The last of these issues provokes indignation among some women when it is raised in class. A number of them think it most unfair that members of the Myanmar military are entitled to advance voting if they are posted outside of their constituency, while this is not the case for members of the ethnic armed forces.

One doesn’t envy the trainers having to teach political procedures and voting rules while avoiding getting involved on specific party or political issues, but they quickly get the class back on track and into less controversial debates.

While such specific issues are not part of the curriculum, and trainers must remain non-partisan, matters such as ethnic conflict as well as gender discrimination are major concerns for many of the women taking part and are key reasons they joined the classes.

One participant San Dar Win, coordinator of the Future Women’s Association in Loikaw, is attending with the aim of going on to train a further 30 women to be election observers. She points out that the women of Kayah are not entirely without voting practice.

“This is an area where many households had members involved in the ethnic armed forces. And many were away for battle. The wives would vote on their husbands’ behalf,” she said.

But she recognises that this does not mean that the ethnic armed forces and their party representatives are any more supportive of female candidates than other political groups. She also points to widespread gender-based violence in local communities as an example of deep-seated discrimination women have to face.

“I think it will take altogether another 16 years for women to be [fully] involved in politics,” she said.

Still she believes this poll will not see a repeat of the 2010 election result in which the USDP claimed every seat in Kayah in a heavily rigged poll. She considers the forthcoming vote as part of a step-by-step move toward greater democracy.

Gesturing to the younger women in the She Leads group, she smiles.

“We trust more in this election. There is more freedom and transparency. And now all the youth are involved it offers hope for the future.”