RANGOON — With an increase in gender equality movements in recent years in Burma, advocacy groups are beginning to prioritize engaging men in an effort to end sexual harassment and violence against women.
Gender experts say including men in gender awareness programs is one strategy to solve the country’s gender-based violence.
Htar Htar, founder of Akhaya Women, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that the organization has tried to promote change in traditional Burmese gender norms, which incorrectly tell men that they are the more powerful gender, potentially leading them to commit sexual violence against women.
“Men are taught by their families and society to be tough and to react in violent ways to solve problems,” she said. “Women are taught to be soft, dependent, and to stay silent, which results in victim-blaming in rape cases.”
“Akhaya Women educates men about sexuality and gender identity in order to help [men] understand more about women’s bodies,” she said.
“When we say ‘sexuality,’ it is not about how to have sex,” she said. “We teach [men] to understand themselves and the nature of male and female bodies, so they can learn how to respect women.”
Male-dominated and socially conservative, Burma ranked 85th of 187 countries in a 2014 gender inequality index, according to the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA). Although the UNFPA and civil society organizations helped draft an anti-violence law in July 2015, it was never enacted.
Nilar Tun, national gender advisor of Care International Myanmar, said the organization began engaging men last July by providing trainings of trainers (TOT) workshops for male NGO employees, and hopes to do more community-level training.
During the trainings, male participants were asked to reflect on their daily lives, and whether they had taken part in or witnessed any sort of sexual offense, she told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday. She explained different patterns of gender-based violence to the men and encouraged them to speak out against sexual assault.
“While reflecting, some of the men told me they realized they might have somehow committed sexual assault on women in their daily lives, either intentionally or unintentionally,” she said.
She said the majority of men who took part in the training programs had changed their attitude toward women.
“They started to learn how to respect their partners, wives or girlfriends,” she said.
Dr. Sithu Htun, a member of the Gender Equality Network’s Engaging Men Working Group initiative, echoed Nilar Tun. He told The Irrawaddy that he learned the effectiveness of men’s involvement in stopping sexual harassment after receiving training from Care International.
“I was afraid when I realized I might have committed sexual harassment, knowingly or unknowingly,” he said, adding that before receiving the training, he wasn’t aware of what actions could be defined as sexual harassment.
“I learned that even catcalling counts as sexual harassment,” he said.
The trainers asked the men what might lead perpetrators to commit sexual assault.
“Society expects men to be dominant, aggressive, heads of household who can feed their family members,” he said. “When men cannot meet the social expectations of men, they feel pressured, and failing these expectations may lead them to have sexual aggression.”
Ethnic Chin activist Cheery Zahau told The Irrawaddy that men usually think that discussions about violence against women are not relevant to them.
“This idea is so wrong,” she said. “It impacts their family members—mothers, sisters, wives and female partners.”
Sithu Htun said engaging men in gender discussions was one of the most sustainable ways to end sexual violence against women, and that another way was to include gender identity lessons in Burma’s school curriculums.
Htar Htar also said including sex education lessons in school could reduce gender-based violence and discrimination against homosexuality.
However, she raised concerns over the misunderstanding of “sex education” in traditional Burmese society.
“Sex education means teaching children about the functions of human sex organs, like other body parts,” she said. “I hope our society becomes less conservative, and allows people to understand what sex education really is.”
Cheery Zahau said including men in gender equality discussions remained a challenge.
“Most Burmese men still don’t seem ready to take part in gender discussions,” she said.