RANGOON — One of Burma’s leading women’s rights groups on Monday published groundbreaking qualitative research revealing troubling patterns of violence against women that had long gone unexamined.
In an 83-page report titled, “Behind the Silence: Violence Against Women and their Resilience,” Rangoon-based Gender Equality Network (GEN) undertook a deep study into the types of violence experienced by women in Burma and how women’s rights are perceived by a cross-section of society.
The extensive study, which was conducted by a team of five primary researchers in collaboration with the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, was among the first of its kind and will help to underpin a new anti-violence against women law set to reach Parliament in April or May of this year.
Research consisted of in-depth interviews with 38 women in Rangoon and Moulmein who had each experienced some form of intimate partner violence. Further study was carried out during focus group discussions in Lashio, Magwe, Loikaw, Labutta and Kale, and key informant interviews were conducted among relevant officials, legal advisors, counselors and various authorities.
A review of existing literature on violence against women (VAW) in Burma was also carried out, concluding that discrepancies in research methodology and terminology surrounding the issue to date has left “gaps in the literature,” whereby some types of violence have been overlooked and thus unaddressed.
GEN’s report also noted a “concerning lack of ethical and safety structures in place to minimize the possible negative consequences of research on sensitive topics with vulnerable women,” advising that future research be conducted with particular attention to confidentiality, follow-up support and avoiding future risk for participants.
The report, while admittedly not comprehensive, is what GEN referred to as “a step toward ending violence,” providing a picture of some of the forms violence takes in Burma, how it is experienced and how it is addressed. The study focused primarily on abuse perpetrated by partners such as husbands or boyfriends, but also examined some cases of non-partner abuse.
Participants described a broad range of violence, including economic manipulation, verbal abuse, physical and sexual assault. Almost all of the women involved in the study had experienced more than one type of abuse, indicating that violence is “not a one-off,” but rather a recurrent predicament.
More than half of participants had experienced intimate partner sexual violence, or marital rape, which is not a crime in Burma. GEN advocated strongly for the inclusion of a provision on marital rape in forthcoming legislation, noting that while current law does not identify this type of abuse as a crime, women also typically do not view it as such.
In the case of women who were sexually abused by their partner, the report said that “[v]ery few women actively identified their experiences as rape, yet all of them described incidents in which they were forced to have sex against their will.”
Normative attitudes about sex were found to center on male desire and female submission, the report said, resulting in societal values that herald “purity” and can lead to severe stigmatization. In some cases, women married men who raped them to avoid shaming themselves or their families.
“He grabbed me and had sex with me. I screamed, and he told me to be quiet and not shame him,” read one woman’s account of the first time she was with her spouse. “We became like husband and wife after sex, right? So I had to get married to him.”
Stephanie Miedema, one of the study’s principal researchers, said that similarities were apparent in the accounts of many of the women; most faced multiple forms of abuse, many had difficulty seeking support, and the experience of abuse often reinforced attitudes of inequality.
“Many women’s stories pointed to this idea that abuse is an indicator of unequal status in society,” she said, adding that disadvantages enshrined in law and in societal norms leave women “unable to negotiate their safety and security.”
Miedema’s colleague, Dr. San Shwe, reiterated the need to push forward with the Myanmar National Prevention of Violence Against Women Law, in order to ensure that all forms of violence are recognized as such and to provide women who experience abuse with avenues of adequate support and legal recourse.
“We still do not have a good law to protect [women] from some kinds of abuse,” she said, remarking specifically on psychological abuse, which the study found to be common among most participants, particularly in the form of humiliation and verbal abuse. “There are people who go mad, go loopy,” she said, “they get depressed, some of them attempt suicide.”
The report’s authors recommended that more research—both qualitative and quantitative—be carried out in continued efforts to understand how violence plays out and affects women in Burma, and advocated for the creation of a legal framework that provides for identifying and preventing abuse, supporting survivors, making recourse and medical care available and affordable, and promoting gender equality more generally. GEN also advocated for primary- and secondary-school curricula focusing on gender awareness, sexual and reproductive health.