YANGON — If you are a teenage girl in Myanmar, your mother, grandmothers and aunts worry about you. You are told to dress modestly, never to go out alone and not to leave the house after sunset. You are forbidden to play with teenage boys when you start menstruating. All the while you are warned of the dangers of being raped.
Almost every girl goes through her teens with that fear, a fear that gets passed on quietly from one generation to the next. Mothers worry for their girls and restrict their every move. But the rape of women and young girls is not declining. According to official figures from the Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA), the rape of young children and women has increased for the past two years. Sexual violence against women has continued, perpetrated either by civilians or soldiers, and especially in conflict areas, where seven decades of civil war grind on.
Severe punishment for the rapists, even when caught, is rare.
But in the 21st century, women no longer shut their mouths. They provide peer support for victims and help report cases. And more rape cases are being reported, mostly in towns. In many cases of child rape, the culprit is a member of the extended family or a brother, sometimes even the victim’s father. Some of the victims are only two years old.
“We are become aware of more of these cases as the female victims or their guardians speak out. In the past these cases were just hearsay because cases were not brought to the police as women were too shy to do so,” said U Min Zaw Oo, founder and executive director of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security, a think tank.
For the past few years, women’s rights advocates have been calling for legislation that better protects vulnerable women from rape.
There has been a public outcry for harsher punishment for rapists, even the death penalty.
Perspectives on Capital Punishment
Some activists say rapists should be put to death because they won’t bring any good to society.
“These perpetrators should be punished with a death sentence because the current punishment is not enough,” goes a common refrain. Some even say suspected rapists should be killed without a trial because the legal process takes too long.
Others would prefer a lengthy prison sentence of perhaps 20 years.
“What worries us about punishing a rapist with a death sentence is the victims’ families or guardians won’t speak up if the rapist is a close relative,” said Daw Kyi Pyar, a Yangon Region lawmaker.
“I don’t support the death penalty because sometimes we forget that those rapists were acting because of their childhood experiences and that those actions have been transmitted,” said Daw Yin Myo Su, founder of Inle Heritage and the first private community school in Nyaungshwe, in southern Shan State.
If a rapist is sentenced to death, “it is not an answer to the case and it won’t bring the victim immediate justice because the victim will have to live with the trauma for the rest of her life,” said Daw Thet Thet Aung, a former political prisoner who now works for labor rights with the Future Ray of Light.
Stronger Law Enforcement Needed
Everyone agrees on the importance of the rule of law in preventing rape cases.
“The rapists must receive harsh punishment in prison, but they don’t have to be entitled to a pardon. Sadly, there have been presidential pardons in the past that have set those criminals free.” Daw Thet Thet Aung said.
U Min Zaw Oo said Myanmar’s judicial system should allow victims to file their own complaints, as in some other countries, as rapes usually have no witnesses.
“The police do not have specific procedures for sexual violence cases. We need people who listen to their problems. We don’t have such procedures. We need that kind of training and information sharing so that the victims can raise their voices,” he added.
Victims need psychological support services to help them rehabilitate their lives. When the victims are teenage girls, they can’t return to their schools because they feel scared and ashamed. In some cases the families even move to try to leave the experience behind.
There have been many awareness campaigns on the rape of both minors and women. Legislation aiming to protect women from sexual violence is now at the attorney general’s office; advocates expect it to become law soon.
“The [number of rape] cases can only fall when the legislative, judicial and law enforcement sectors and civil society groups work together,” said Daw Kyi Pyar.
Campaigns Need Male Support
Most participants in awareness campaigns are women, who mostly pass on their message to other women. More men need to join them.
“Men need to be educated that they can only have sexual intercourse with women of a certain age,” said U Min Zaw Oo. “There needs to be more public awareness about the law regarding rape and the age for intercourse. The problem is that many men do not know about them.”
Advocates say they also know of unreported cases of sexual violence against young boys. In Myanmar culture, for a young boy to become a man he must live up to certain expectations; no one wants to be seen as weak.
“They may feel twice as shy because culturally boys and men are not encouraged to talk about such issues openly and they try to avoid that public perception,” said Daw Yin Myo Su.
In addition to strengthening legal protections and raising awareness, preventing rape also requires changing mindsets, cultural barriers and social norms.
“We cannot neglect the social norms,” said Cheery Zahau, a human rights advocate and 2017 N-Peace Award winner. She said there was no protection for minors because of social “norms and traditions that the men can do anything they want; such thinking and action needs to dissolve.”
“Can we truly admit to ourselves why such rapes happen?” asked Daw Yin Myo Su. “It is because of our culture, a culture of not talking about sexuality openly. We have been told since our teenage years that talking about sex is not polite and that we should not speak out…. The mother won’t talk to her daughter, and neither will the school. We were not taught in our teens about sexuality and reproductive health or how to deal with those feelings.”
In Myanmar society, our elders and law enforcement authorities say it is the girls and women who must take responsibility for preventing rape. But making only girls and women aware of the dangers and check their actions is not the answer.
Legislation and awareness campaigns are important. But it is just as vital that everyone respects women and girls as fellow human beings.