Women’s Rights Bill to go to Parliament in 2017

By Tin Htet Paing 8 December 2016

RANGOON — Burma aims to submit a long-awaited bill to Parliament in early 2017 that will better protect women from violence, according to the committee working on the draft law.

Being the only country in Southeast Asia that does not have a law focused on women in a male-dominated and socially conservative culture, Burma currently practices the outdated British colonial-era Penal Code, which describes the offenses and penalties for sexual violence against women in generic terms.

Article 376 of Burma’s Penal Code states that those convicted of rape “shall be punished with up to 20 years imprisonment or for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.”

The committee is chaired by the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement and comprises several civil society organizations that promote gender rights, including the Myanmar Women’s Affairs Federation and the Gender Equality Network. The committee has been working on the 19-chapter draft law since 2013 and is now a step closer to adopting the legislation.

Daw Naw Tha Wah, a director at the Department of Social Welfare operating under the ministry, said the committee is reviewing the recommendations made by the Union Supreme Court on the draft law and would distribute the finalized version to all committee members.

“We started working on the draft law under the previous government but there was a government transition right before we finalized it,” she said.

“The President’s Office instructed us to prepare it again in accordance with the new administration’s policies,” she told The Irrawaddy, explaining why it had taken so long to submit the bill to Parliament.

According to the Gender Equality Network, the draft law provides a legal framework to address five major forms of violence against women: physical, mental, sexual, economic and cultural—which would cover domestic and intimate partner violence, marital rape, stalking, cyber abuse, and harassment both in public places and work environments.

Women’s rights activist Ma May Sabe Phyu, who is also the director of the network and the joint secretary of the law drafting committee, told The Irrawaddy that she has yet to assess the recommendations of the Supreme Court until the social welfare department shares them with all committee members.

She said, however, that she is not yet fully satisfied with the finalized draft law as there were serious concerns from women’s rights activists on the version submitted to the Supreme Court. There were many provisions that government organizations and women’s rights activists could not negotiate and agree upon, she said.

“Government officials don’t want to include provisions that they think go against culture, tradition and customs, while we cannot let women’s rights be violated for any reason,” she said.

“We even had to argue on the definition of rape.”

Women’s rights activists demanded that rape cases committed by members of armed groups in conflict areas be investigated according to this law once the legislation is enacted, which government officials disagreed on, she said.

“We spent so much time drafting the law and with many difficulties,” she said. “We want this law to be flawless, and include provisions that will grant effective protection for women and girls as demanded by women’s rights groups.”

She wants this law to be enacted as soon as possible, providing the provisions are suitable.

“It would be nonsense to submit a law in a rush and then have to amend it after it’s enacted,” she said.

Project manager Ma Myint Zu of the Women’s Organizations Network, who was involved in the consultation process of the draft law, said there were concerns about the bill’s measures of punishment for offenders and legal rights for victims.

“We suggested the committee consider legalizing abortion for young rape victims,” she said.

According to the police force, there were 761 incidents of reported rape from January to September 2016.

More than 30 civil society organizations that promote gender equality launched a 16-day campaign on Nov. 25 to reduce gender-based violence, celebrating the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

While Burma doesn’t have a specific law protecting women’s rights, a controversial set of four so-called “Protection of Race and Religion Laws” was passed by Parliament last year. Rights groups have criticized the laws as discriminatory against women and religious minorities. The laws were lobbied by a group of hardline Buddhist nationalists, known by the acronym Ma Ba Tha—who claimed Burma and the women of the country were under threat from Islam.