The Women’s Forum was held in Yangon, Myanmar, December 6 and 7, 2013, an event unimaginable a couple of years ago. Drawing 400 participants from 27 countries, the Forum was located at the midtown Chatrium, a now bustling 5 star hotel facing the scenic Kandawgi Lake, where 4 or 5 years ago, you could count the number of foreigners and tourists on one hand, with the occasional German or French tour group. This was a strikingly glamorous and incongruous event, sponsored by the French Embassy (which has been active in Myanmar for a number of years),* organized, for some odd reason, by a Yangon Modeling Agency (which explains the lineup of beautifully made up and costumed Burmese women who seemed flummoxed by our queries at the registration desk), and “partnered” by corporations such as PepsiCo, Total, ACCOR, BNP Paribas, L’Oréal. French and Italian women hurried by in fashionable outfits and high heels; African, Indian, and Burmese and ethnic delegates wore their national dress. Founded in 2005, and based in Paris, the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society is a subsidiary of French advertising and PR giant, Publicis Groupe. Its website, rather implausibly, claims that this forum is the “world’s leading platform featuring women’s views and voices on major social and economic issues. Deploying women’s experience and expertise across all generations and geographies, it offers practical discussions on how to overcome barriers and create new horizons and opportunities, as well as broad, rich and edgy debate on important ideas. The Women’s Forum also promotes the advancement of women world-wide via business and social networks.” At regional and international meetings such as this one, the Forum aims to bring together male and female leaders from all over the world (and the following order is indicative of its orientation and priorities) from business, government, academic circles, and culture “in order to give new perspectives to key issues in our present and our future; to create a powerful, global network in order to strengthen the influence of women throughout the world; to draw up innovative and concrete action plans to encourage women’s contribution to society and promote diversity in the business world.” The 2014 Forum is set for Brazil.
Titled “Women in a fast-opening society,” the Myanmar Forum had an impressive line-up of powerful women, nationally and internationally: Aung San Suu Kyi (Chair of Myanmar’s National League for Democracy and MP in the recently formed Myanmar Parliament) and Christine Lagarde, President of International Monetary Fund, resplendent in sparkling pink outfit and a velvet black hair ribbon. (Excuse the details about dress and appearance, but these are not sights often seen in this country). When each of these women made her grand entrance for a panel on “Developing Leadership for Tomorrow,” there was a sudden hush, then commotion, in the room of over 100 participants and a scurry and flashing of photographers, both local and international (Media Partners included the New York Times, La Tribune, CNN, as well as The Irrawaddy and Myanmar Times). A phalanx of bodyguards and handlers surrounded them as they strode into the room (Suu Kyi, as is her custom, came late). Other “elite” figures from governments, NGOs, and business included Su Su Lwin, another MP, and chair of the Education Committee (Education at all levels being one of the aspects, along with Health, that need serious reform), Dr. Thein Thein Htay, Deputy Minister of Health,**Sanjit Bunker Roy, Founder, Barefoot College in Rajasthan, Mu Sochu, MP from Cambodia, and Human Rights advocate, Michael Issenberg, Chair, Accor Asia Pacific, Theo Sowa, CEO, African Women’s Development Fund, Anne Lauvergeon, an engineer, physicist, CEO of ALPSA, a French advisory and services company, Aurélie Filipetti, the French Minister of Culture and Communication, and Vicky Bowman, former British Ambassador to Myanmar, now Director of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business. Participants were primarily from Myanmar, other Southeast Asian countries, and France. Americans were present as organizers of the Forum.
Most participants were “global leaders” to quote one newspaper’s description. Women were drawn from political parties, government departments, NGOs, and business companies and corporations, with a few writers tossed in, like Irène Frain from France, a young Burmese poet and blogger, Pandora, and Myanmar’s most celebrated novelist, Daw Ju, a friend of mine, who spoke of her life both as a novelist (until recently all her writing had to undergo censorship) and as an environmentalist, who worked particularly hard after Cyclone Nargis devastated the Delta region in May 2008.
The Forum was organized into predictable plenary panels such as “Market Opportunities in the New Economy,” “Developing Leadership for Tomorrow,” “Engaging the Environment,” “Advancing women’s rights in rural Myanmar,” “The Culture Corner” and into smaller breakaway workshops, e.g. “Women in Media,” “What Myanmar women can do to create better health for themselves, their families and communities,” “Vocational and Occupation Skills Training.” Communication and the articulation of complex ideas were often hampered by language barriers, that is, people, whether of French or Burmese origin, spoke in stilted English, which meant it was difficult for everyone including native English speakers to understand them..***Unfortunately, moderators too often posed banal questions (“you come from a working-class background?” “what is the situation of women in your department, business, university….?”). Some government officers from Myanmar produced patently official statements: for example, the Director General of Culture evaded queries about support for women in the arts by reading prepared comments on the history of culture in Myanmar –historic buildings, the tradition of puppets, archeological sites. The usual platitudes about the need for more women in administrative positions in business and education were offered up in too general terms. Clearly, that this forum was more effective in presenting opportunities for networking (and showcasing good will on the behalf of some corporations) rather than in providing real substance, in depth analysis, or practical applications. In hotel hallways and corners, one came upon media scrums and interviews (a brand new sight in this once media unfriendly country, a sight that unnerved me, accustomed as I am to caution around media and public speaking here), some mingling, and a number of animated exchanges
For those unfamiliar with Myanmar, however, useful information was imparted about the education system (ineffectual learning by rote, 70% of a household’s expenditure goes toward education (books, supplies, etc.,), women comprise 58% of the university population, but very few have administrative positions in business, university or government, women need to have higher scores! to be accepted into higher education). As well, participants heard examples of gender inequity and pressing women’s issues, including treatment of HIV; police indifference, inadequate laws and legal protection in cases of domestic violence; and land rights for widows and rural women.
Some of the smaller workshops had lively and focused discussions on specific problems, others were undetermined by vague speeches and language barriers. There was criticism of the elitist stature of the participants and lack of representation of rural Myanmar women. However, women from some distinct ethnic groups (of which there are about 100)—Shan, Kachin– were in evidence. At the “Leadership “ panel a debate ensued, involving the audience, about quotas for women in politics and business; Suu Kyi intervened at this point, stating she was not in favour of quotas, her point being that nominees for her party (NLD) should be selected on the basis of their suitability –the old chestnut about merit. Being a smart and ambitious politician, she was concerned more about election than gender equity; however she has spoken publicly on several occasions about the need for more women in politics and government. She also explained that before the most recent elections the NLD had aimed for 50% women candidates, but only achieved 30% because some female candidates were not seen as meriting the Party’s nomination. At this time, only about 4.7% of MPs are women. Apparently, Christine Lagarde later spoke in favour of the value of “quotas for a time,” with the caveat that this was her private opinion, and not that of the IMF.
Despite its limitations, and a missed opportunity to engage proactively with urgent women’s issues in Myanmar as it opens to the international community, an event like this can engender some positive results. For example, a young woman student, feeling that lack of representation by rural women, plans to organize a forum for rural women in the countryside; an international Quatar-based telecom company, OOREDOO, announced it would hire all women (one hopes not only for sales and call centres). And it remains to be seen what kinds of networks are formed as a consequence of this event between women in Myanmar and international communities, and among Myanmar women themselves.
*Canada had imposed among the most severe sanctions on Myanmar during the military regime; these have now been lifted, and a Canadian embassy has just opened in Myanmar; thus, unlike France, Germany, the UK, the US, and Australia, for example, which have had influential presences and strong links in this country for many years, Canada has had a minimal presence, which it is now trying belatedly to rectify.
**There are seven women deputy ministers and only one minister in the current government.
*** Translation Services were offered and speakers who presented in Burmese and were translated of course expressed their ideas more effectively. One woman spoke in Burmese to make a political point.
Kathy Mezei in Yangon