The sexual abuse of women and children in Myanmar has been on the rise for the past few years. There were 1,405 reported rape cases across the country last year alone, 897 of them involving girls less than 16 years old, the highest number on record.
On Feb. 15, in response to the rising numbers, the Home Affairs Ministry asked the public to cooperate with police to combat rape, listing alcohol and drug abuse, ignorance and easy access to internet porn among the main drivers.
The ministry also urged parents, elders and media to encourage women and girls to dress modestly, a recommendation that quickly drew criticism for victim blaming.
There have also been mounting calls for capital punishment for rapists following the rape of multiple children since January, including an attack that resulted in the death of a 2-year-old girl.
Daw Nilar Thein, who oversees women’s and children’s affairs for the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, spoke recently with The Irrawaddy’s Nyein Nyein about options for deterring and punishing rapists.
The number of child rape cases has increased significantly, and there have been calls for capital punishment for rapists. Do you think that’s the right answer?
The most important thing in our country is to have the rule of law. Maximum punishment should be imposed in child rape cases. But the death penalty is not an answer. We need to consider the reasons behind the high number of rape cases.
We need to impose harsh penalties on rapists. The punishment must be an effective deterrent. Though the death penalty is applied in our country, there are many cases in which death sentences are commuted with amnesty.
When rapists return to society, they continue to commit crimes and harm society. So we need to think about how to make sure the punishment handed down is strictly administered. Second, there is a need for society to take good care of children. Even if the social welfare departments at different levels can’t do that, civil society organizations and society need to take great care of children.
Because people today have fewer job opportunities and have to struggle for their livelihoods, they can’t bother to pay attention to things happening around them. Much of society has an onlooker’s attitude and society is largely deteriorating, so rape cases occur as a consequence.
Some blame the victims for being raped. They criticize the way women dress. How urgently does public perception about this need to change?
The lack of knowledge is a real problem in society. We can’t blame attire as the main cause. The mind of a rapist is not normal. We need to think about it. But I don’t want people to do victim blaming.
In our society, there are many people who molest women, whether they are in Myanmar clothes [longyi] or long pants or short pants, or on board a public bus. They are people who ignore social ethics.
A lack of morals is a pressing issue we are facing. Many women today face being molested on buses, not to mention other places. The main reason is poor morals.
More women victims are now reporting their experiences on social media, so we know about them. But what are the dangers of social media?
In our country people now have mobile phones, and many tend to watch porn movies online rather than studying good things. It used to be difficult to rent porn movies. Not every movie rental shop rented porn movies, and harsh action was taken against movie rental shops that did rent porn movies.
But now, with access to the internet, [potential rapists] can watch [porn movies] easily on the internet, and the consequence is that [women] of any age living near them fall victim.
Now we have easy access to sexual information, where before there was hardly any sexual and reproductive health education. How long will it take our society to accept reproductive education in the school system?
It is not easy for everyone to accept sexual education. It is a taboo subject in our country. We have yet to get rid of the entrenched attitude that girls should not listen to sexual education. This attitude is deeply rooted in our country. I’m afraid it will be quite difficult to change in the next 10 years.
Speaking of child rape, people usually focus on prevention for girls. But aren’t boys also vulnerable to rape? How worrying is it?
Speaking of child rape, it concerns both boys and girls. You can’t neglect it because it is a male-on-male offense. And you shouldn’t think that there won’t be male-on-male rape cases. We need to make it clear that there are harsh punishments for offenders whether they abuse a boy or a girl. If parents keep silent about male-on-male sexual offenses because of shame or fear or because they think it doesn’t matter, the situation will get worse, as with the rape of girls.
Though there have been calls to change existing laws, the civilian government has yet to change them. What do you want to say about that?
We understand that there are a lot of difficulties with chancing those laws. Mainly we have been calling for constitutional change. We can’t just sit and do nothing, thinking that we can’t change it because of that 25 percent of seats [held by the military in Parliament]. We have to try to change the Constitution as best we can.
Another thing is that any existing law and amended law must take effect. Any change to the letter of the law doesn’t matter. A major problem in our country is that laws are inactive. Therefore, there is no rule of law, and consequently it is easy to hit and kill people. It is very easy for people to commit crimes.
We have to make sure people are aware of the punishments and that they are afraid of those punishments. Laws must be active. Otherwise, not everyone is reluctant to hit and kill other people. This is the main reason for child rape cases.
Some organizations are conducting campaigns to broaden knowledge and awareness. What are the challenges to raising awareness on a wider scale?
Public interest is important in conducting awareness campaigns. As I have said, when people think the topic is not their concern, the campaign will not be successful no matter how keen the educators are. So we need to find ways to attract their attention. We have to work with great patience to make the entire society understand that they should know about this, that it is not a shameful subject and that it concerns them all.
For example, we need to start [awareness campaigns] at the ward and village levels, and then the township level and so on. Awareness in Yangon alone is not enough. I want the entire society to know about this issue. When everyone knows and understands it, they will join hands to prevent it. The bigger the prevention effort, the lower the number of offenders.
In Myanmar, people forget whatever was the talk of the town after six months or a year. What attitude do we need to get things done?
We should not focus on temporary issues that pop up. Our association mainly engages in human rights. People are very unhappy about going to court. Why? The rule of law in our country doesn’t protect citizens. In many cases the aggrieved party gets discouraged. Those who have more money win lawsuits. It is quite sad. But there have been cases where justice was served.
To put it in a nutshell, we must always be aware of certain things such as human trafficking and the sexual abuse of children.
Some cases have gone unreported and ended in tragedy. But when a particular issue is highlighted, we need to have political awareness. It would be very good if the entire society were to join hands in good faith to address this issue.
But it is very important that [certain groups] not play with those issues in a political ploy. Now, most people can look at both sides of a story and make their judgements, and they are not easily swayed.
Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.