Women in Politics: Train, Practice, Lead

Burmese Women’s Union’s tried-and-true process helping women into local leadership works! Chairperson Tin Tin Nyo walks us through it.

A man examines a display created for BWU’s Stop Violence Against Women Day in Kyaukkyi, Bago Region.

Tell us about the Burmese Women’s Union’s (BWU) work.

Since we were established 25 years ago, BWU’s main focus has been to increase women’s participation in politics. That means we promote women’s leadership in every aspect of society. We use a few different methods of capacity building: internships, short-term democratic leadership training, and long-term political empowerment training. We now work in three places, Ayeyarwady Region, Bago Region and Kayah State.

What is BWU’s approach to leadership?

A leader is someone who is willing to give a helping hand to others while committing to their aims. Someone who is a facilitator, mediator, moral supporter and who is decisive and knows what they are doing: that is a leader. Most of us started as followers and then slowly we have taken the position of leaders. We learn a lot while we are at these different levels. This is the form of leadership we try to promote within BWU. We have to earn it by working hard, taking responsibility, and by being accountable.

What holds women back from taking on leadership roles in Burma?

Some women are under pressure from their husbands, their in-laws, or society to stay home and not to get involved in the community. I met an organizer of a local event who told me that she could only come to the event after she had cooked for her husband, her children, and her in-laws, and she had to give money to her husband for the day she was out working [to make her time away worthwhile to the family].

Men go out of their homes more often. They go to teashops and they spend time chatting. That’s why they often become organizers or do charity work. Women don’t have time to do this, so they don’t have a chance to go out and earn trust from the community. They are occupied with household work and they don’t have the same social connections. Since they don’t have extra time, they feel they can’t get involved in community events, welfare or charity work. So they don’t have a chance to earn the people’s trust. In order to become a leader—these are the two main things they need to earn from the people: connections and trust.

How does BWU help women to earn these key leadership qualities?

We start by raising awareness among the women themselves about the rights that they have. Then they start to commit. Secondly, we bring them with us when we are meeting important people in the community—we connect the women with them. In the events we organize, they become co-workers with BWU, and people see what they can do. The third thing we do is promote them as speakers or as co-facilitators, so they can demonstrate their skills and knowledge. Through this, they start to get recognition. Lastly, we try to build a constituency for them in their community. People start connecting to them, then they connect with BWU. BWU mentors them and advises them on how to solve problems in the community. Then we do upper-level trainings to build their capacity. Training, practice, training, practice: that’s how we do it. These methods take three to five years. It’s a big investment of time.

What do you say to encourage women to get involved in BWU’s work?

I tell them, even if you are married, you don’t have to leave the women’s movement. Even if you have children, you can still continue in the movement. Marriage is not the end of our journey and having children is not the end of our career. These are the women we are—others have to accept it.