Pitcure of Judith Graley and Nan Moe in Myanmar's Parliament

WAVE – Mentor program confronts Myanmar’s patriarchal Parliament

Pitcure of Judith Graley and Nan Moe in Myanmar's Parliament
Judith Graley and Nan Moe at Parliament. Photo: Jen Clark

WAVE is a ground-breaking women’s leadership program that brings together and supports individual women, organisations, and movements in Asia and the Pacific region to increase the representation of women in diverse leadership positions.

In 2017, IWDA collaborated with Akhaya Women in Myanmar, to match aspiring and newly elected women politicians with Australian mentors who have spent their careers in politics.

Current and former Members of Parliament from all over Australia, visited Myanmar to mentor newly elected Myanmar women from four political parties and six ethnic groups.

After a landmark victory for Myanmar’s National League of Democracy party in 2015, the number of women in parliament has doubled but is still under 11 per cent of all MPs. Across the ethnic diversity of Myanmar, the country remains deeply patriarchal.

Obtaining a political position in the face of sexist institutions is hard for women, no matter where they’re from. Getting into the game isn’t enough in itself, these women need support to present and advocate for legislative change that will benefit women in their communities.

Women are forging careers in politics without, what most people would consider, the basics for a Member of
Parliament. They don’t have their own offices, staff, laptops, let alone a strong system of support. But they do have the ideas and motivation to make change.

Lway Nan Moe is from Ta’ang National Party, one of the many ethnic minority parties in Myanmar. She felt an instant connection with Judith Graley, a state Labor MP from Victoria. Despite their cultural differences, the two immediately bonded over shared stories of overcoming self-doubt and sexism.

Nan Moe says her first foray into parliament has been hard. “When I came inside the parliament, I thought ‘oh my god, this is a men’s place, it’s not for a woman’…When I spoke for the first time in the parliament, I was very scared to speak…”.

Growing up in suburban Australia, Judith agrees her image of an MP didn’t reflect someone like her.

“You fill yourself up with all sorts of questions about whether I can do this. There is a little voice in your head all the time saying can I actually do this role?” Judith said.

The Myanmar MPs have the knowledge of the law, the skills to do their job, and finally, a seat at the table. The idea of the mentors is to be a sounding board and support the Myanmar women to build the confidence to navigate a male-dominated world in Government. But when the women from Myanmar and Australia came together, their individual life experiences came out in more than just their political ambitions.

Ann Sudmalis is a Federal Liberal MP from New South Wales and was partnered with Naw Chris Htun (NLD). Both have three children and neither started their life is politics – Chris Htun was a vet, and Ann was a teacher and small business owner. After becoming well known in their communities, both women wanted to do more, and chose to leave their established careers to enter politics. Ann has had a mentoring relationship
before, and knows how beneficial they can be.

“I would love an opportunity later to come over and see the changes in her because I know that if you open the doors for a woman and say ‘you can do that’, very often the woman will push the door open wider and step right through.”

Over a few days they discussed strategies on how to engage with their own parties and male colleagues, how
to communicate and campaign to their constituencies, and the ways they balance pursuing their passions with their other responsibilities. They spoke about self-confidence, partnership, and the importance of networking, and about being a woman in what’s still such a male-dominated environment.

It’s going to be an uphill battle for these brave women to generate new laws and policies that will protect and advance the rights of women in Myanmar. But the mentorship program has given them a valuable new tool in their mission for a more gender equitable Myanmar. The women are now working together to plan how they’ll leverage their connections to push their agendas in parliament.

Myanmar Program Manager Jen Clark said, “The women’s organisations we partner with in Myanmar have told us that they want to deliver more innovative and ongoing development support beyond short term training. So we saw a great opportunity for IWDA to draw on our networks in Australia, and our experience in successful women’s political mentoring models.”

The WAVE program is supported by the Government of the Netherlands.