Formal and Informal Justice Systems Fail Women: Report

By Nyein Nyein 5 July 2016

Women in Burma still lack access to justice due to an absence of awareness and the widespread use of customary practices in ethnic areas, according to researchers.

After a panel discussion at the United Nations’ “Women’s Access to Justice in Plural Legal Systems in Myanmar” report launch in Naypyidaw last week, a lead researcher told The Irrawaddy that formal and informal justice systems in Burma do not work adequately for women.

The research for the report was conducted mainly from 2013-14 in four regions: Kachin, Chin and Mon states, and Rangoon Division. Researchers queried over 400 women and later highlighted the need for a formal institution through which women could seek justice in the case of rights abuses.

Cheery Zahau, co-researcher for the report and renowned ethnic Chin human rights activist, said the understanding of women’s justice differs widely throughout Burma’s various states.

For communities in ethnic regions, some people “feel [there is] justice when their lives are safe and free from harassment by the military,” she said, adding that in other communities, social support for education and health is perceived as representing justice.

The report showed that women in Rangoon faced particularly high incidents of domestic and sexual violence, including rape, especially in communities with large numbers of internal migrants. It can take up to three months to file a case in the courts, so victims of sexual abuse need better social and psychological support, said Cheery Zahau.

She added that in remote ethnic areas, many women do not speak Burmese and cannot travel the long distances required to reach the nearest police station to report crimes; therefore, communities continue to enforce controversial customary practices.

Often, customary laws do not allow women to participate in decision making when settling disputes. Because these systems lack space for women’s voices to be heard, social harmony is often prioritized over women’s rights.

Getting women involved in dispute resolution would likely have positive results, but in many cases, men still take on such roles in the name of tradition, said Cheery Zahau, adding that discrimination against women is entrenched in Burmese society. Yet because there is a widely held perception that women already experience equal rights, she pointed out that society often remains ignorant of their ongoing vulnerabilities.

Burmese women’s rights groups submitted a report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) this week, which aims to establish an international framework that will promote women’s equality and ensure compliance with its standards.

CEDAW is conducting Burma’s review from July 4-7 in Geneva. It is the first time since 2008 that the committee has examined the country’s record for respecting and upholding women’s rights.