RANGOON — One afternoon in September, a 13-year-old student walking home in central Burma was accosted by a young man declaring his love for her. She swore at him. Incensed, he killed her, holding her head under water in a ditch for five minutes.
“There was no reason to die if she had spoken courteously. It’s her rudeness that killed her,” a Facebook user said under a news story about the girl’s violent death.
A week earlier a young man barged into an office, grabbed his estranged girlfriend and stabbed her 20 times in the office bathroom. This followed the attack on a model by a man – said to be her ex-boyfriend – who knifed her in the neck at her home in Rangoon.
These killings and the “victim blaming” that followed show that Burma is in urgent need of a law to protect women from violence, activists and lawmakers told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Male-dominated and socially conservative, Burma lived under military rule for almost half a century until a quasi-civilian government took over in 2011.
Women’s groups say existing laws, which date back to the British occupation in the 19th century, are outdated, unclear and poorly enforced. They demand the swift submission and approval of the Anti-Violence Against Women Law that is now being drafted.
Some are concerned that the lack of women in Myanmar politics – just two out of 36 ministers and less than 5 percent of 644 parliamentarians are women – and traditional, patriarchal attitudes that still prevail are major barriers to the bill being passed before the next election, due in late 2015.
“All the other countries in the regional bloc ASEAN have laws protecting women from violence. Myanmar is the only country without such a law,” said Nyo Nyo Thin, an independent member of parliament in the former capital Rangoon.
“The government have been saying for over three years now that they’re drafting this law. Please don’t just talk the talk,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of the Myanmar Women’s Peace Forum in late September in Rangoon.
Outdated and Unenforced
Burma currently has no laws to prevent violence against women at home or sexual harassment in the workplace, or to allow women to seek restraining orders on violent men.
Under the Penal Code, the colonial-era primary legislation on violent crimes, rape is narrowly defined, and marital rape is exempted unless the wife is under 13. The punishment for rape – up to 10 years’ jail – is often not enforced, activists say.
“The arm of the law does not reach ethnic areas and other remote places,” said Kay Thi Myint Thein, senior coordinator at the Gender Equality Network, a coalition of some 100 NGOs.
“Some cases were resolved when the man gave a new pair of cows to the woman’s family or when he killed a pig and fed the whole village. The women don’t get anything,” she said.
“Most women are told not to make one form of shame (rape) into two with a legal case. That kind of attitude still exists in both remote places and big cities,” she added.
The GEN is helping the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement draft the law that would criminalize violence, including domestic violence, against women.
It hopes the draft law will be in line with international human rights standards, including the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which Burma acceded to in 1997.
It is unclear whether the draft law will address contentious issues such as marital rape and traditional practices that discriminate against women – for example, only sons are eligible for inheritance in some ethnic groups.
Women’s groups are also fighting to stop a new law intended to prevent Buddhist women from marrying non-Buddhist men in majority-Buddhist Burma. The draft law has the backing of Buddhist monks as well as the president.
While ethnic women’s groups have painstakingly documented atrocities committed against them, especially by the Burmese military, there are few reports on general violence against women across Burma.
Activists say there is no baseline data and whatever data there is may be incomplete. For example police figures only count cases of rape that have been reported to them.
Anecdotal evidence shows a rise the number of reports of rape, though it is unclear whether this is due to increased awareness or an increase in the number of incidents.
Burmese media, quoting police sources, said there were 654 rape cases in Burma in 2012, making it the second most frequently reported serious crime after murder (1,323 cases). There were 605 reported rape cases in 2011 and 377 in 2010.
Despite repeated calls, the police department did not provide 2013 figures.
“There are more cases but more people are also speaking out,” said Mar Mar Cho, coordinator of Women’s Organizations Network of Myanmar (WON). “Previously we couldn’t speak of these things and the media was also not allowed to cover them,” she said.