Nyein Nyein: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss punishing and deterring rapists of children as well as awareness campaigns with Daw Thandar Kyaw, child protection adviser at Save the Children, and Daw Nilar Tun, joint chairperson of the Gender Equality Network. I’m Irrawaddy English reporter Nyein Nyein.
Nyein Nyein: There have been more and more reported rape cases of women and children. There are rape cases almost every day and the age of the victims range from above 60 to below 2 years, which is quite disturbing. There has been a large number of rape cases since the beginning of 2018, and these have been reported in various areas including Yangon, Mandalay, Hpa-kant and Mawlamyine. What can we do to deter rape?
Thandar Kyaw: In addition to rape, there are other forms of sexual abuse. To cite one example I came across, a 26-year-old man put ash along with a spoon into the sex organ of a 4-year-old girl. Also, sexually touching children can be considered rape. It is very important to prevent this. Because of the economic conditions in our country, both parents usually have to work to earn a living and have to leave their children at home. They think that their children are safe with neighbors and acquaintances. But then, 90 percent of cases are “acquaintance rape”. Only around 10 percent of rape cases are committed by strangers. In acquaintance rape, offenders are mostly cousins, uncles, friends of uncles, neighbors, grandfathers, fathers, and stepfathers. So, we would advise parents not to leave children alone with an acquaintance; don’t leave [them] under a single pair of eyes.
NN: People our age grew up in a safe and secure environment. So, we think that our children are also safe. But we have been shocked by recent rape cases. We find these tragedies hard to believe. What are the weak points in the laws protecting women and girls?
Nilar Tun: Our country does have a law protecting women. But that law has a lot of shortcomings. The existing laws define rape as penetration only. But as Daw Thandaw Kyaw has pointed out, there have been cases of inserting fingers and spoons. So, I would say the definition of rape is not comprehensive enough. As a result, there have been many cases in which loopholes have been exploited. This means effective prevention can’t be provided.
NN: There has also been criticism that the existing laws have not been properly enforced. What are the difficulties in enforcing the laws? What are the weaknesses of law enforcement organizations? Ma Thandar Kyaw, your organization handles a lot of cases and cooperates with law enforcement. Can you share your experiences?
TK: In our culture, rape is a source of shame, so it often goes unreported. In some cases, the offender is rich or powerful or has higher social status [than the victim]. An example is outside tuition teachers [those who teach to primary/secondary students outside of school hours]. In one case, an outside tuition teacher sexually abused their entire class, both boys and girls. But, [people] didn’t believe it, and thought the children were talking nonsense. Later it was found to be true. There have also been [unreported] cases committed by rich people. For example, a 60-year-old neighbor sexually abused a 3-year-old girl. He was rich and the parents of the victim couldn’t afford the trial expenses. So, they took compensation and settled the case. There are cases that go unreported because of shame. There are cases in which the daughter is raped by her step-father and the mother dare not report it. When a case is reported, it is important that the police who conduct the investigation are specially trained. If a child victim is sent to a hospital after being raped, hospitals refuse to give medical care if the case has not yet been reported to the police. The child is in urgent need of medical care, covered with blood, but the hospital refuses to give medical care without a police letter. We can improve this situation. Hospitals can give medical care first and ask for a police letter later. In one case I encountered, we lost the lawsuit at the first stage [township-level court] though the offender was guilty. We had to appeal to a higher level [court] as the offender was rich. As he was rich, he paid bribes and…
NN: Money talks.
TK: Yes, there are cases in which richer persons win lawsuits. This is still the case. We also need to improve this situation. This is also a challenge in handling child-rape cases.
NN: This issue involves public education. Speaking of public education, there have been campaigns, but not with clear policies outlined by all stakeholders. In your experience, what is the response of the public to education campaigns?
NT: Lately, there has been wider media coverage of the issue, including calls for imposing the death penalty in rape cases. Given this, we can conclude that people don’t accept [the increase in rape cases]. But as far as awareness-raising programs go, there are hardly any being conducted at the national level at present. It is fair to say that the concerned departments and organizations are doing small-scale activities on their own.
TK: There is a great need to raise awareness about this issue. But in the context of our culture, it is a difficult issue to talk about between parents and children. We have to overcome this. In order for children to be able to protect themselves, parents need to tell their children which of their body parts should not be touched by anyone; and that they can refuse if somebody tries to touch those parts and that they should tell their parents if somebody touches those parts. It is still difficult for parents to have a friendly talk to their children in this way. People still believe that such things are not appropriate to say to their children. But public awareness needs to be raised on a wider scale.
TK: As you have just said, similar measures should also be taken at schools and both parents and teachers should always monitor children’s behavior and check to see if they have any injuries on their body. They should also know that they need to report it to the authorities if they find injuries. For example, if a teacher finds irregular behaviors and injuries on a child, that teacher should recognize that this is not natural and think about where to report it. Could they, for example, report it to the Social Welfare Department through its number for exploitation and sexual violence against children? When personnel from the Health Department visit schools, they should do the same if they find suspicious injuries, even if the visit was for a different purpose. In this way, we will be able to prevent rapes more effectively. If we can broadcast more television programs and debates on such issues through the media, awareness campaigns will be more effective.
NN: There have been cases in which younger teenage girls were raped by older teenage boys. In our society, boys are always taught to treat girls and women as their sisters. There are still such cases, however much we teach them. How important is the participation of men in the campaign?
NT: The participation of men is very important to prevent, reduce or eliminate sexual violence based on gender discrimination. This is because more men are involved in committing rapes than women, although not all men commit rapes. Therefore, their participation is very important. Although our society teaches them to treat girls of their own age as sisters, they too have to live in narrow boxes for too long. Teenage boys think they should have sexual experiences and they will be real men only when they have done so.
NN: It is said that law enforcement as well as awareness campaigners are important in prevention of rapes. Last week, the Ministry of Home Affairs announced that one of the reasons for rape is the wearing of revealing clothing by girls and women. This is a government ministry blaming rape on the way girls dress. This is victim blaming. What do you think of the statement from the ministry?
NT: We need to ask whether all victims dress like that. If we look at the world, rapes cases are abundant in places where every part of a girl or woman’s body is wrapped up in clothing. Therefore, we think it is unacceptable to blame dress style for rapes. It depends on people’s attitudes. A person with a rapist’s mentality will commit rapes whether the victim is dressed “properly” or not. However, people who do not have such a mentality will never commit such crimes. It depends on the mentality, not on the dress.
NN: What’s your opinion?
TK: I agree. I cannot accept blaming dress style for rape because even nuns have been raped. No one dresses as properly as nuns. We need to do deeper research into it. We need data and statistics because everything needs to be based on evidence. In Myanmar, rapes are mostly committed in five states and regions. We need to do research into why most rapes were committed in these states and regions during a particular period under certain conditions and who committed the rapes. We need to know everything including whether the victims dressed “properly”, whether a particular situation forced them to be victims, whether the rape was committed intentionally or not. It is necessary for us to know such things. Only then will we be able to adopt effective measures to prevent rapes against girls and women.