YANGON — With the latest government figures showing a significant increase in the number of reported rape cases, the Ministry of Home Affairs on Thursday asked parents, elders and media to encourage women and girls to choose modest attire.
The suggestion, included in the ministry’s report on rape statistics for 2016 and 2017, went viral and quickly drew criticism. Many Facebook users called its decision to blame rape cases on the way women and girls dress “ridiculous.”
Ma Shwe Yinn Mar Oo said the ministry was ignoring its own shortcomings by placing blame where it did not belong.
“It is just victim blaming,” she said. “They shouldn’t just say what they think. They need to do proper research. Were the victims drunk? Were they revealing? Did they use drugs? But if we take a look at the cases, they did not. Even insane people and children 4 or 5 years old are raped.”
According to the ministry’s report, in 2017 there were nearly 900 rape cases involving children under the age of 16. There were 1,405 cases overall, up 28 percent year on year.
In the same report, the ministry said there were many reasons for rape, including cruelty, a lack of knowledge, alcohol and drug use, and the physical weakness of children.
To help prevent rape, it recommended that mothers and guardians watch over their children closely, not let them out of the house by themselves and not leave them alone with relatives, neighbors or strangers.
“Police alone can’t prevent the causes. Collaboration is needed with civil society, parents and teachers. Teachers, parents, elders and also media should guide women and girls on the way they dress,” the report said.
It also listed female drunkenness as a leading cause for the rape of females over the age of 16, along with easy access to aphrodisiacs and pornography on the internet.
Lower House lawmaker Ma Zin Mar Aung said there was no reason to accept such excuses for rape.
“As long as there is a victim-blaming culture — saying there is rape because parents aren’t vigilant, because women and girls go out at night, or blaming the way women dress — the number of rape cases won’t be reduced even with harsher punishment and sentencing,” she said.
Ma Zin Mar Aung said Parliament debated increasing the punishment for rapists in 2016 and as a result approved 20-year jail terms when the victims are minors.
“I think we need to consider the increasing number of rape cases carefully. How will society respond to those cases? We need to send a clear message that the rapist is the only one who should be ashamed and rejected, and show that all men and women don’t accept such acts in society,” the lawmaker said.
She added that much more advocacy work was needed to change social stereotypes and to stop state institutions from blaming the victims.
Nang Nyi, who lives in Yangon — which, as the most populated city in the country, also sees the most rape cases — agreed that police needed much more training and education to stop the victim blaming.
“Instead of doing their jobs properly, they are blaming the girls — it is ridiculous,” she said.
She said she also feared that the Home Affairs Ministry’s comments might make rape survivors hesitate to report their cases, citing the recent example of several girls who reported well-known astrologer Aung Chit Po for sexual assault. One of the girls told The Irrawaddy that police called her “stupid” and “naive.”
The police initially refused to accept their complaint, claiming a lack of evidence, but relented after a public outcry.
“Even as a state institution with a duty to protect citizens, it is doing the victim blaming,” Nang Nyi said. “Who will dare to report to them in the future? In a way it is also abetting the crimes.”