‘A Stark Picture’ for Women in Conflict-Affected Burma: Report

By Yen Saning 23 September 2015

RANGOON — New research published on Wednesday offers a heartbreaking picture of the impacts of conflict on women in Burma, revealing systemic defects that cause long-term disadvantage for survivors of violence and other forms of abuse.

An 84-page report titled, “Opening the box: Women’s Experiences of War, Peace and Impunity,” tells the stories of 29 women from Rangoon Division, Kachin and Karen states who had each suffered some degree of gender-based abuse under Burma’s former military regime.

Their stories, told with staggering candor, include accounts of torture, rape, economic control, destabilized families and glaring failures in the government’s capacity for redress. The report recommended an immediate end to violence against women, implementation of constitutional reforms that would place the military under civilian control and increased efforts to support survivors of abuse.

Published by Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR) in collaboration with the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand (KWAT), the Karen Women Empowerment Group (KWEG) and the Women’s Organizations Network Myanmar (WON), the participatory research was carried out between January 2014 and July 2015.

Of the 29 women whose stories are told in the report, nine were ethnic Kachin, 10 were ethnic Karen and 10 were former political prisoners. The authors said the cumulative research portrays “a stark picture about how the government, the army, non-state armed groups, the UN, and NGOs fail to pave the way” for women’s survival in the context of conflict and government oppression.

Of the report’s six key findings, the main conclusion was that violence against women is both empowered and maintained by a culture of impunity, rendering international commitments and public promises insufficient in tackling the issues that affect women in Burma.

“We found that violence is continuing,” AJAR director Galuh Wandita told reporters in Rangoon on Wednesday. “For us, it was time to reflect on how [there could be] so many global announcements, Security Council resolutions, all sorts of commitments to stop violence against women, and yet this is still happening.”

Impunity, reluctance to seek justice and judicial shortcomings proved to be a theme of the report; of the 29 participants, only three even attempted to seek legal recourse. Of those three, two were wholly unsuccessful, and the only one to achieve any sort of justice was given a ruling that the victim and her family found dissatisfying.

“We also found that impunity, and the inability to seek justice, is nurtured by social and economic factors,” said Khin Mi Mi Khaing, herself a former political prisoner and the only one of the report’s subjects who was present at Wednesday’s press briefing. “Culturally, women are silent; they cannot speak about [abuse] because it is shameful. The economic burden that victims have to carry means that they [often] cannot even consider going for justice. It’s impossible—they are fighting for their daily survival.”

Beyond economic disadvantage—in some cases linked the death of family members during conflict, and in other cases caused by the social exclusion that comes as a byproduct of political imprisonment—women who have suffered abuse have the added difficulty of dealing with psychological trauma and health impacts. According to Mai Ja, who serves on the KWAT advisory board, women suffer more than male refugees an internally displaced persons (IDPs) because they face unique problems that conflict environments are wholly unable to attend to.

“Women, after they face violence, feel psychological and health problems more than normal refugees. Their family life is destroyed. It is heartbreaking to know a Kachin woman who has lost her livelihood; someone who was an orchard gardener in her original place is now collecting snails to sell at her children’s school,” Mai Ja said. This kind of situation is similar to [the experience] of Karen women and former political prisoners.”

While seeking justice has proven to be a daunting and often fruitless endeavor, two of the report’s subjects—both former political prisoners—have taken a different path of recourse: Ma Thandar, Hnin Hnin Hmway and Tin Tin Cho are all currently running for parliament in Burma’s Nov. 8 general election.