On UN Women’s Day, Burma’s Shortcomings Exposed

By Feliz Solomon 26 November 2014

RANGOON — A little more than two years ago, Thida Htwe, a young Arakanese Buddhist, was robbed, raped and murdered in Ramree, Arakan State. Shortly after her death, paper fliers and audio CDs began to circulate demanding “justice for Thida Htwe,” according to local sources. That was the ostensible origin of two years of targeted violence that left hundreds of thousands of people displaced and more than 100 dead.

For an offense that inspires such fury among Burma’s population, violence against women doesn’t seem to move the country’s courts. While the three Muslim men accused of the crime were each handed death sentences (which are believed to have been commuted to life in prison, though one man committed suicide in his cell), the ruling was an anomalous outcome.

Two alleged rape cases associated with riots in Mandalay in July were dismissed, and the women who claimed to have been raped were reportedly both hit with various undisclosed charges. Burma’s Ministry of Home Affairs concluded that both of the incidents were fabricated, according to local media, and the women disappeared from both public view and public discourse. While the reasons that these cases played out the way they did were many, some said that soft laws about rape and other forms of abuse are too easily lent to selective enforcement.

Tuesday marked the UN-designated International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, leading to a flood of newly available information published by various women’s rights groups on issues ranging from systematic sexual violence against ethnic women to economic and psychological control. The array of wrongdoings against women in Burma is so diverse that it is nearly impossible to sum up, let alone analyze.

“There are still many people who think that only beatings constitute violence against women,” said May Sabae Phyu, director of the Gender Equality Network (GEN), speaking at a press conference in Rangoon on Monday. The group just published preliminary research on the breadth of abuses suffered by women in their daily lives, which included physical, emotional, partner and non-partner cruelty. The research found that “men’s sexual entitlement was a key theme” in the accounts of women who have experienced abuse.

Burma’s Penal Code safeguards attitudes of male superiority. A husband “has the right to rape” his wife if she is above the age of 12, according to Htar Htar, founder and director of Akhaya, a Rangoon-based NGO focused on women’s empowerment. Marital rape, while it is believed to be common, is not recognized as a crime in Burma. Htar Htar easily pointed out many other discriminatory policies, which is why she is part of a committee working with the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement to draft the Anti-Violence Against Women Law. She expects the bill to reach Parliament by late next year.

The law will create legal mechanisms through which women can seek recourse and support. It will also offer a new legal definition of rape that would align with international norms, which Burma has never had before. Current law only sees rape as non-consensual penetration by a man against a woman, if they are not husband and wife and where “penetration is sufficient enough to constitute the sexual intercourse necessary to the offense.” Prosecution requires women to prove that they did not consent, even in the context of conflict. According to the Rome Statute, an international law treaty to which Burma is not party, consent is irrelevant in conflict because the environment is inherently coercive.

That is a distinction that will need to be addressed during the reform process, argued the Women’s League of Burma, an umbrella group of women’s rights organizations that on Tuesday launched a report about state-sponsored sexual violence in ethnic territories. The group has documented more than 100 cases since 2010, roughly when the former military junta ceded power to a quasi-civilian government and began to undertake a peace process with the country’s myriad armed rebel groups.

It is still unclear which of the committee’s recommendations will be accepted, but members are optimistic. The draft embraces a broader and more inclusive view of what violence is: namely, a threatened or actual use of force that could result in injury, death or psychological harm. While rape and domestic abuse are extreme forms of violence, Htar Htar pointed out that, “when we talk about violence against women we are also talking about harassment, and this is a part of everyday life.”

Women in Burma routinely experience harassment in public places. One woman told The Irrawaddy that it is not uncommon for men to ejaculate on women in close spaces, such as city buses. Htar Htar was one of a handful of activists behind a popular “Whistle for Help” campaign, launched in 2012. The idea was to canvas Rangoon distributing plastic whistles to women on buses, encouraging them to blow the whistle on men who harassed them.

Many people knew about the Whistle for Help campaign, which was popular in the media and among activists. What fewer people realized was that the project was soon stopped by organizers out of concern that exposing harassment in public places risked retaliation and could even spark a riot. The pattern of using sexual assault as a premise for communal violence has scared some women silent, several activists said.

Burma signed the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1997, but has not signed an additional protocol that would create enforcement mechanisms and allow intervention by the convention’s committee. Burma endorsed a Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in June 2014, a non-binding UN initiative.

Nearly 52 percent of Burma’s total population is female, according to preliminary results of the 2014 census. Only about 5 percent of the nation’s lawmakers are women.