Women in Politics in Asia

15 Aug

By PISA Program Assistant, Jinhyang Kang


“Women hold up half the sky” is a Chinese proverb representing women’s equal contribution. Gender equality has come far, yet gender balance in politics in Asia still needs quite a bit of work. Recently, a small number of women have held high level positions of political leadership including Tsai Ing-Wen, President of Taiwan, Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor of Myanmar, Park Geun-Hye, President of South Korea, and Pratibha Patil, former President of India. They certainly are a hopeful precedent for the future; however, the actual extent of representation of women in politics is still very low in Asia.

Despite the fact that there are many countries with strong advanced industrial economies in Asia including Japan and South Korea, an advanced economy does not necessarily mean equal representation of women in politics. Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, recently announced a policy of “Womenomics” which targeted the positioning women in high level management and national bureaucratic roles to empower women in the society. Although this was an effort to place more women in decision making positions, the outcome has yet to make any significant difference. The Japan Times reports that in 1946 in the first postwar Lower House election women won 36 seats (8.4%). Today, they hold only 9.5% of the seats in the Lower House, while in the Upper House, women hold 38 seats (16%). Despite its rapid and successful economic development, Japan has made very little progress in gender balancing within politics. South Korea is not much different. The Ministry of Personnel Management of the Republic of Korea states that women accounted for 49.4% of civil servants last year. However, the large majority work for the Ministry of Education, meaning that they are mostly state public school teachers. Excluding those civil servants working for the Ministry of Education, women working in public service are only at 23%. Even though the current president of South Korea is a female, women in South Korea rarely hold senior positions in the bureaucratic and political realms.

The gender imbalance in politics in Southeast Asia is much greater compared to the rest of the world. It is more complex due to the region’s diverse religions, traditions, and cultural norms regarding perceived gender roles within societies. Although Southeast Asia has had impressive female leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor of Myanmar, as well as Chandrika Kumaratunga, former President of Sri Lanka, many are associated with men who had already held leading political positions within their respective countries. In fact, this seems quite common not only in Southeast Asia but across Asia in general. Many female political leaders in Asia either owe their prominence to fathers, husbands, brothers, or they are the replacements for assassinated leaders or those removed through a military coup. These women are certainly positive indicators of progress for women’s empowerment, yet their influence through family ties to male leaders reflect the ongoing limitations of women’s representation in politics.

Despite governmental efforts as well as that of social movements to empower women’s representation in the administrative and political realm, women’s political representation in Asia is still very low. In order to improve the quantity and quality of female representation in bureaucracy and politics an institutional strategy is essential. It is necessary to upgrade education and economic engagement to ensure women’s political empowerment. Although several factors that hinder women from participating in politics, such as religion, philosophy, tradition, and cultural norms are difficult to change, it is also necessary to change the perception that ‘a woman’s place is in the home’. In addition, electoral and quota systems are worth considering as a form of affirmative action to improve women’s participation in bureaucracy and politics. These are all important, not just for the sake of fairness. The more women sitting in decision making positions, the better the representation of women’s needs including parental leave, child care, and equal pay. And ultimately this will produce growth as well as a reduction of poverty and despair, not to mention a breakdown of the historical, cultural, and normative barriers for future generations of women.

The Myanmar’s Education System: PART 1. Primary Education

10 Aug

By PISA Program Assistant, Jinhyang Kang


Myanmar once had the best education system in Southeast Asia. However, due to the decades of military rule that suppressed academic and intellectual freedom, the quality of education has decreased significantly. As Myanmar undergoes a political, social, and economic transformation under a new democratic civil government, education has an important role to play. Myanmar’s current education system has three components: Primary, Secondary, and Higher education. We will focus mainly on primary and secondary education in Part 1 and will discuss higher education in Part 2.

[Poor, yet Expensive]

Officially Myanmar’s primary education is compulsory. It is a five year curriculum and there is a comprehensive exam to pass in order to go to secondary school. Since tuition is free, it is reasonable to picture crowded schools full of children taking classes and running around the school yards. However, the reality is quite different. Even though public primary school tuition is funded by the state, there are extra expenses to cover including uniforms and books, which many families simply cannot afford. In addition, due to Myanmar’s overwhelming poverty, 20% of 10 to 17 year olds are engaged in child labor to support their families. These one in five children are working as domestic servants, servers at teashops and factory workers in the garment industry. School attendance after primary school drops precipitously as well. Beginning with Secondary school, families now have to worry about children’s tuitions, uniforms and books, as well as transportation to school as there are very few secondary schools in town and they are usually miles away from villages. This poor, yet expensive education system in Myanmar has failed to keep children in school and keep them out of the labor market. Along with the Myanmar’s poor education system, poverty devalues the long-term effects of education and pushes every child from their home to the labor market for an immediate, yet short-term cash return.

[Still a Hope, but Not Enough]

Even though many children cannot afford education from state-run schools, some children receive free education through the Buddhist monastic schools. Monastic schools in Myanmar have a long history and tradition of involvement in state affairs as well as people’s lives. Now, they are taking on the added responsibility of improving the quality of education by providing the non-religious national curriculum to children. Unlike the state-run schools, the monastic schools accept underprivileged and disadvantaged children and provide a free or  low cost education as well as food. Since the cost of education is the main challenge for parents in sending their children to school these monastic schools are often the greatest hope for the children. According to Monastic Education Development Group, the monastic school system in Myanmar operates over 1,700 schools catering to over 300,000 children currently. It is undeniable that these monastic schools are playing an important role in educating Myanmar’s future generations, yet they receive very little funding from the state. Monastic schools mainly operate with very limited resources from international organizations and NGOs. Due to these insufficient resources, there is a lack of teaching facilities, learning materials, and certified teachers. In fact, many of the teachers at monastic schools do not possess a teaching certificate and are usually volunteers. Monastic schools play a vital role in providing education for children in Myanmar, yet the quality of the education and facilities still needs help.


[Bitter at First, but Sweet Later]

As the often quoted, Maimonides once said, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Viewing education as a long-term investment will produce, in the end, a lot more fish. Even though poverty reinforces a doubt in the value of education, a shift in mindset and beginning to see the importance and long-term value of education is critical. The beginning process of investing and fixing the current education system will be challenging and somewhat of a bitter pill to swallow, yet the outcome will be sweet and rewarding as education is crucial in reducing poverty and generating growth not only for the individuals, but also for communities and the whole nation.

The Plight of the Korean Peninsula: Climate Change

21 Jun


By PISA Program Assistant, Jinhyang Kang

Climate change is a global, trans-national issue affecting every region and nation around the planet. And while no single nation is immune, for some, given their location and the particulars of their economic dependencies, the effects are more immediate, wide spread, and direct.

According to the Ministry of Environment of the Republic of Korea (ROK) the Korean peninsula, home to both North and South Korea, is particularly vulnerable. Over the last century, the peninsula’s average has risen twice as fast (1.5°C) as the global average (0.6°C), and is experiencing frequent heavy rainfalls as well as severe droughts. At Juju Island, to the far south of the ROK, the sea has risen three times higher (a 22cm increase over the past 40 years) than the global average.

The economic changes are undeniable, especially in the areas of agriculture, fishery, and forestry. Cultivation of warm season fruits such as tangerines and kiwis, which used to grow only in Jeju Island, is expanding from south to north, while temperate fruits such as apples, pears, and peaches are at risk. Due to the rise in temperature, the damage to agricultural products from noxious insects has also been increasing. In terms of the fisheries, the catch of cold-water species such as walleye pollack and codfish has decreased sharply, so much so in fact, that many are now imported; while the catch of warm-water fish, such as mackerel and cuttlefish, has increased. As for forestry, pine trees, which thrive in a colder climate, face harm and cherry trees blossom earlier throughout the peninsula. Along with the rising temperatures, inconsistent and extreme weather patterns including typhoons, heavy snow, and drought have had huge, negative impacts to all types of productions.

South Korea, through its successful achievement of rapid economic development due in large part to environmentally insensitive development methods and industries that are heavily dependent on conventional fuels, is now facing a serious pollution issue along with effects of climate change.

For North Korea, climate change greatly affects food security, which is one of the great challenges of the country. Only 15% of North Korea’s land is arable and extreme weather patterns, heavy rainfalls, droughts, and other climate changes are harming agriculture, fisheries, and even directly threatening people’s lives. In addition, due to the lack of advanced techniques and practical knowledge, North Koreans are even more vulnerable to certain climate change impacts such as sudden decreases in agricultural productivity as well as landslides and insect outbreaks to name a few.

Though the governments and policies of the two Koreas could not differ more greatly, there is plenty of common ground when it comes to the impact that climate change is having on each. If these changes continue, the Korean Peninsula could become a sub-tropical zone with a new host of challenges such as the need for food adaptation, water resource allocation, as well as the need to face high temperature zone related health issues like malaria and dengue virus. The plight of the Korean Peninsula highlights quite profoundly climate change’s indifference to boundaries, borders, and ideologies, and the growing perspicuity that a trans-national solution to this global challenge is paramount.

Working for Peace on the Korean Peninsula: Insights from AFSC’s Dr. Linda Lewis

11 May Linda Lewis Photo

By PISA Program Assistant, Mary Howard

On March 23, PISA was honored to host Dr. Linda Lewis’ presentation titled, “Inside North Korea Today: Working for Peace on the Korean Peninsula.” As American Friends Service Committee Country Representative for China/DPRK, Dr. Lewis directs AFSC’s Dalian, China office and agriculture program in North Korea. Dr. Lewis shared valuable insights about her interactions with North Korean farmers, and the importance of knowledge-sharing.

When consideringNorth Korea, Dr. Lewis emphasized three key points to keep in mind: (1) the war on the Korean Peninsula is not over, it is only subject to a cease-fire agreement; (2) the humanitarian needs of the North Korean people are great; and (3) the DPRK’s isolation is extreme. Unresolved war retains the potential to erupt in new conflict. As a peace organization, AFSC has been working in North Korea for over thirty years to promote stability.

One of North Korea’s greatest challenges is food security. Only 15% of North Korean land is arable to support 3,000 cooperative farms upon which the population depends for food. To increase North Korea’s agricultural productivity, AFSC demonstrates sustainable farming techniques and shares practical knowledge. One success story is AFSC’s introduction, in 2004, of plastic trays for rice seedling cultivation  The plastic tray technique results in a 10-20% yield increase over conventional seedling cultivation, and thanks to its cost-effectiveness and sustainability, North Koreans factory managers are now proposing to produce the trays domestically.

Dr. Lewis described AFSC’s other agricultural work in North Korea, from a greenhouse project to training exchange trips.  AFSC, much like PISA, responds to partners’ needs and collaborates to find practical, sustainable methods to address problems. Please take a moment to view this short video, edited by PISA staff assistant Ms. Leann Ji, featuring Dr. Linda Lewis on AFSC’s work in North Korea.

International Women’s Day

8 Mar

By PISA Staff Assistant, Leeann Ji

In 1975, the United Nations adopted a resolution that thrust women’s rights into the international spotlight by creating International Women’s Day – a recognition of women and their achievements celebrated on March 8th of every year to come. International Women’s Day not only recognizes the successes and courage of women, but it also reflects on strides made towards a more equal world. Although the world has made significant progress in advancing women’s rights since 1975, the international community still has a ways to go before we can call ourselves completely equal.

In Asia specifically, women are rising up from the holes that society dug for them and speaking out for their female peers. For South Asian women and later women all over the globe, Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Peace Prize recipient, led the charge to support educational opportunities for all females, especially for young girls living in countries under misogynist regimes. While Malala’s story began in South Asia, her voice has spread across the globe.

Another Nobel Peace Prize winner from 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi obtained a victory after 15 years of house arrest in Myanmar’s 2015 general elections, which paved the way for the former political prisoner to move towards the presidency. Her leadership in the National League for Democracy existed not only as a milestone for women but also for Myanmar as these elections were Myanmar’s first openly contested elections in 25 years. Furthermore, last year’s general elections dramatically increased the number of elected women from 5.9% to 14.5% in the Union Parliament. A voice for the people in Myanmar and especially a voice for women, Aung San Suu Kyi has defied all the obstacles that the former regime had thrown her way.

While Malala and Aung San Suu Kyi exist as two important female figures in Asia, many other Asian women work towards equality within their own communities. At PISA, our mission seeks to promote sustainable development in Asia through strategic means – this includes involving women in the process. Women exist as an integral part of PISA’s collaborative work across Asia because we understand the importance of gender-inclusive leadership development. In 1997, PISA aimed to advance women’s impact on international affairs by launching the Women’s Initiative on International Affairs in Asia, a cross-regional network of women active internationally as diplomats, NGO leaders, scholars of international relations, and private sector executives.


Participants from PISA’s 1997 Workshop for the Advancement of Asian Women in International Affairs. This workshop in Hong Kong led to the launch of the WIIAA.

International Women’s Day stands not only as a day to celebrate the achievements of women around the world but to also bring awareness to those women who do not have a voice. We should not limit ourselves to recognizing women’s contributions on March 8th; every day matters in the continuous progress towards full equality.

What I Learned About Climate Change in Yangon

13 Jan

By Mary Howard, PISA Program Assistant

What can cities teach us about climate change? In November 2015, Myanmar’s top environmental NGO, ALARM, invited PISA to learn first-hand about climate change impacts on Yangon and the city’s action. As a first-time visitor to Myanmar, Yangon was a completely new experience for me and I left the country with more nuanced knowledge about climate-wise development and inspiration for future progress.

Thanks to arrangements by our partner ALARM, PISA’s 3-member team toured the entire city and viewed Yangon’s urban development first-hand. Yangon, formerly named Rangoon during British colonial rule, is Myanmar’s largest city. My first impression of Yangon was overwhelmingly positive: the tree-lined roads provided lovely greenery, colonial architecture mixed with traditional homes added to the city’s cultural charm, and landmarks such as Inye Lake and the Shwedagon pagoda were scenic and awe-inspiring. However, upon closer inspection, the city’s problems, aggravated by climate change and rapid urban expansion, became evident.


Throughout the city, traditional pagodas next to modern buildings are a common sight.


Myanmar’s rich cultural history is evident through the diverse architectural styles.

Some of the major urban development issues Yangon faces are: a lack of organized and enforced building codes, few public green spaces, water supply issues with subsidence risks, flooding in the low plains (where low-income housing exists), a deficient waste management system, and air pollution. Compounding the development issues is a major affordable housing shortage. Access to the housing market presents obstacles for residents, especially due to the lack of financing institutions. To buy a home, a purchaser must pay the whole sum in cash, which is not an option for most people.  Another complaint of civil society leaders in Yangon was that city development decisions are made for short-term economic gain, without consideration of long-term environmental impacts.


Wealthier neighborhoods are tree-lined and lush with greenery.


A young girl in a temporary housing area walks home from school.

Civil society organizations identified the many issues and are taking action, from organizing academic workshops to raising public awareness.  PISA’s director Linda Yarr, and John Carruthers, director of the George Washington University’s Sustainable Urban Planning Program, each presented at the first-ever “Conference Towards Green Construction: Low-Carbon Buildings, Smart Design, New Materials, and Eco-Townships,” at City Hall, attended by high-level officials, the media, and general public. The conference, co-sponsored by ALARM, French NGO Green Lotus and Yangon City Development Committee, showcased green technologies for urban development. Multiple architectural firms (Archtyp Group, French Railways, AREP Group, Vihara Studio) were represented, and shared information about major sustainable building projects completed throughout Asia. As the business delegates pitched their companies’ green accomplishments, a major question arose in my mind: how relevant were these examples for Myanmar?

A striking feature of Myanmar people, evident during my short stay, is an attitude of cultural pride and identity. While participants at the conference were eager to learn, Yangon’s planners wanted to learn from other nations’ experiences and adapt best practices suitable to Myanmar rather than simply import foreign designs and projects. Damon Zumbroegel, CEO of Vihara Studio, pithily argued that Myanmar’s traditional architecture is already green. Traditional homes, which incorporate locally-available materials and simple designs for cooling, are sustainable. The country should not lose its own character in adopting “Western” ways of green construction. Rather, they should learn and adapt techniques in a “Myanmar way.”


With parliamentary elections completed days before, the people’s eagerness for political reform was tangible.

Excitement and hope for future changes were palpable among all those we met. As Yangon progresses, and the country undergoes political reform, I am honored to continue my work through PISA programming in Myanmar and help build human capacity to deal with challenges induced by global warming impacts. After this trip, I believe that for any outsider to understand a country’s development needs, they should at minimum, visit an urban center and witness the culture and ideas first-hand. The world can also learn from Myanmar and its experience for future sustainable urban planning against climate change.


Effective Resource Governance: The Need for Active Civil Society

27 Oct Mr. Win Myo Thu presents on Myanmar's resource governance.

PISA was honored to host Mr. Win Myo Thu for his presentation on “Reform, Resource Governance and Civil Society in Myanmar.” As the Executive Director of Yangon-based ALARM, one of Myanmar’s leading environmental organizations, Win Myo Thu offered much insight into the various facets impacting the country’s sustainable development. You can check out the filmed talk here.

In 2011, Myanmar’s military government promised “change” and Mr. Win Myo Thu critically assessed how much reform has actually occurred. Political stalemate, disharmony among actors, bureaucratic resistance, decreasing trust, corrupted monopolistic capitalism and religious/racial extremism are among the largest challenges in the political status quo. Without transparent governance, Myanmar’s environmental degradation will only worsen. November’s elections will be paramount to future developments.

The illegal and unregulated timber industry and unaccounted for resource flows to China is one example Win Myo Thu described which highlights the dire circumstances for resource governance in Myanmar. Gross violations of forestry standards such as systematic overharvesting and extraction of undersized trees, occur daily under the military government’s oversight, and have been steadily increasing since 2006. Challenges for effective natural resource management are high: insufficient funding and capacity for the Forestry Departments, historical political revenue pressure, and domestic instability due to ethnic armed groups all contribute to ineffective resource policy making and oversight. With national instability, there are seemingly more urgent priorities that draw attention away from environmental concerns. While Mr. Win Myo Thu’s talk was focused on forest management, the political ecology issues in Myanmar are diverse from hydropower dam construction to copper mining.

Win Myo Thu’s evaluation of how much democratic reform has actually occurred is bleak.   However, he remains optimistic that active civil society and better governance are developing for the better. At the same time, he cautioned the actions of international supporters who might invest or focus on ineffective projects. Although the government’s role is key in sustainable resource management, public policy alone does not account for good governance. Governance encompasses actors from civil society to the press reporters, actions such as establishing norms and transparency, and the societal landscape in which these players and actions are carried out. Win Myo Thu presented his “Theory of Change” for effective natural resource management, which is founded upon human capacity building. By strengthening and enhancing social capital, civil society will flourish, and people will act to protect natural resources through participatory democracy, anti-corruption pressures, civic-state engagement, open governance, diplomatic exchanges and partnerships.

Foreign assistance to Myanmar’s resource governance  development is needed and appreciated by civil society leaders. However, Win Myo Thu recommends closer cooperation and revisiting priorities, in order to guarantee that actions ultimately go towards the people’s benefit.


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