Development in Myanmar: Where are the (ethnic) women in decision-making positions

We women foundation with media platform OneWorld Love and anthropological feminist network LOVA will organise a panel discussion on female leadership in the development sector in Amsterdam as part of this year's International Women’s Day. The panelists will critically engage with the questions: What barriers do women from the ‘Global South’ face in terms of gaining access to leadership positions within the development sector? And how we can change power structures that prevent women from the ‘Global South’ from gaining access to positions of influence? In preparation for this event we asked a number of women we work with to give their opinion on the development sector in Myanmar and share their experiences working with INGOs, and to explore the barriers these women within these organisations in terms of access to leadership positions.

Universal gender issues
Gender inequality is seen as an important global phenomenon; women are on a global scale less likely to be in leadership positions. The struggle for women's leadership can be seen across the world. Yet critical feminist theory and activists claim that feminist agendas are often based on ideas and experiences of Western middle class women and do not take women of colour and women from the ‘Global South’ into account, or often even excludes them for that matter. In terms of leadership, NGOs disproportionately have Western male leaders in high-ranking positions. This can contribute to a discourse that generalises women in the Global South and does not include their voices.

International organisations; bringers of opportunities and networks
Women were asked their opinion about International NGOs in Myanmar. They replied on how INGOs may bring new perspectives and skills which women in Myanmar and local organisations may learn from and apply to their local context, in addition to their own knowledge and expertise. INGOs also tend to have large networks that local organisations can draw from, and offer valuable opportunities like scholarships, training, and give local employees the opportunity to learn new skills.

Western supremacy
However, the women we spoke to also raised some concerning issues especially in terms of how they are perceived by employees from INGOs. In their experience, INGOs mostly push for their own agendas, and they also feel that INGOs see themselves to be more knowledgeable and skilled compared to local staff so these INGO staff workers hold on to notions of superiority based on negatively held stereotypes of local women. One woman expressed how she felt held back by stereotypes of Asian women who are portrayed as “based on her feminine gender and stereotypical notions of being sexually constrained, ignorant, poor, traditional, domestic, uneducated and victimised.” Whereas the Western woman is represented as “educated, modern, controlling of their own bodies/sexualities and freedom of choice.” These ideas are especially problematic as she notes later on because most of the decision-making positions are taken by employees from ‘Western’ countries, and are based on these ideas that knowledge and expertise must come from ‘the West’.

Lack of inclusiveness
The lack of inclusiveness within these decision-making positions also means that working methods of INGOs do not always properly benefit people in Myanmar. Projects may often be based on ideas of international staff members themselves, and conclusions are often drawn from previously done, limited research. If local people would be more included in decision-making process, projects might be much more effective. In addition they felt local women were taken advantage of by international organisations, who they feel, exploit local populations for cheap labour. A big issue is the unequal pay that exists as some INGOs set different pay rates between local and international staff and experts. Which of course seems ironic as these organisations who claim to seek social justice are in fact sustaining structures against these very ideas.

Barriers to leadership
The women we spoke to expressed how within INGOs there is a clear distinction between jobs for local people, and jobs for international staff. Local women feel they mostly are employed in low level jobs and responsible for implementation rather than being included in the decision-making process which are reserved for international employees. This was true despite the fact that local women are far more knowledgeable about the local context. Examples of tasks that local women were often asked to do include translation work and training local people, as well as being used for their local network enabling INGOs to work together with grassroots organisations who are asked to implement projects devised by the INGOs.

The lack of access to leadership positions according to the women we spoke to can be explained by a number of factors:
1. As mentioned before they are linked to ideas that people from ‘Western’ countries hold knowledge and expertise. One of the women felt: “INGOs perspective/view on local people especially women as ‘second class’ compared to Western people as ‘first class’, and they do not want to share their leadership positions.”
2. Women face barriers in term of language and technical skills. One of the women gave an example of how she applied for a job for Project Coordinator, a position she would have been qualified for seen her experiences and skills. Instead she was offered a position as Project Officer as she was told her English language skills did not meet the high standards the organisation required in order to communicate with donors.
4. Due to the low quality of the education system in Myanmar women lack language- and certain types of technical skills and knowledge that are posted as requirements for decision-making positions with INGOs, making it extremely difficult for them to fulfil these positions.
5. Women lack confidence; although they might possess the right skills and knowledge through prior working experiences with local organisations they may feel discouraged and women may not apply for certain positions because of the long list of qualifications.
6. Myanmar specific social-cultural and religious norms related to gender division was mentioned as a barrier for women. Women have few opportunities to start building up relevant skills and experience which is related to existing stereotypes held in Myanmar society. In Myanmar, women are often considered less capable for leadership positions. Also the ethnic division in society is reflected within INGOs; the majority Burman people having more access to these organisations compared to ethnic minorities.

Based on the experiences of the women we spoke to, there are some concerning issues. International development organisations may pride themselves on their efforts of working together with locals and grassroots organisations, but they are still often unwilling to share power, and are still based on the idea that “we know best how to help you.” The grassroot community members in these contexts are used to implement policies that are still decided upon by development organisations from ‘Western’ countries, and little space is created for local women to be part of these processes.

The women we spoke to also gave some recommendations to INGOs based on their experiences as women in Myanmar so that their voice can be heard and they can gain better access to leadership positions.

Equal pay: As previously mentioned there exists unequal pay for international- and local staff and experts, this needs to change so women in Myanmar receive pay according to their skills and experiences.

Learn the local context: Organisations should have a better knowledge of the local context (political, social, cultural) to get a better understanding of issues women face in order to work together more effectively. Working methods should be designed around the needs of the community that are being implemented in. This requires doing in-depth assessments and talking with the community when planning a program. Each community faces different obstacles, and designing programs around these unique needs makes programs more effective and efficient.

Inclusion: Experience and knowledge should be shared on more equal terms. The idea that INGOs hold the key to knowledge should be broken down and it should be acknowledged that different types of knowledge and skills exist and that women in Myanmar hold valuable skills and knowledge needed to make a difference. As one woman said: “They shouldn’t exclude women in Myanmar from decision making positions reasoning or looking down on them that they are stupid or they don’t know like us, they don’t have enough capacity. It is their responsibility to transfer the knowledge and empower the women.” Most importantly, this means giving women access not just to implementation roles but to decision-making positions within organisations so women get the opportunity to grow within organisations and gives them the chance to develop their leadership capacity, which in the end will lead to a far more sustainable way of operating.

In terms of taking direct action, organisations should be more transparent of their policies, and instead of excluding women they should work on capacity building and be transparent about their strategies to get women into leadership positions. A special emphasis should be on women from ethnic minority areas. They often have even less access to leadership positions within (international) organisations, as INGOs currently barely reach these areas. Also in their policies a certain percentage of high-ranking positions should be reserved for local women. By doing this local women will be able to participate in decision-making processes in which their voices and experiences are taken into account.

Join our debate: “Wanted Global Voices on Female Leadership” on International Women’s Day, March 8th from 1600-1800, Oudemanhuis Poort 4-6, Room F0.01, Amsterdam.

Moderator: Kiza Magendane, Writer and Founder African Students United

- Amma Asante, Political Scientist and Advisor Civil Society Organisations
- Fatumo Farah, Director HIRDA
- Ama Van Dantzig, Co-Founder Dr. Monk

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