Failing to Protect Women, In Burma and Beyond

By Naw K’Nyaw Paw Nimrod 25 November 2015

Nov. 25 marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Karen Women’s Organization (KWO) chose this date to release our report “Salt in the Wound: Justice Outcomes and SGBV Cases in the Karen Refugee Camps, 2011-13”. The report documents the results of 289 cases of sexual- and gender-based violence (SGBV) in the seven Karen-majority refugee camps located along the Thai-Burma border.

The results of our research were depressing. In the vast majority—80 percent—of all the SGBV cases in six camps, women received inadequate justice responses. Even in cases of sexual violence, including rape, we found that the response of the judicial system was lacking. The inadequate rulings include perpetrators simply signing an agreement to say that they won’t repeat the crimes—typically with no follow up to ensure that they don’t—or paying a small fine to the authorities—usually with zero compensation for the victims—or almost no action at all by the authorities. This is an inadequate response for crimes of violence.

The results are particularly surprising given that the DFID-funded International Rescue Committee “Legal Assistance Centers (LAC)” program, as well as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Thailand, have been leading the access to justice and protection sectors here for many years. Our report results show that they have failed to adequately protect women in camp communities.

In partnership with international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs), the refugee camp committees have been managing the camps for more than 20 years.  They have created complex health, education, food distribution, and social welfare systems that meet their basic needs, while working with very few resources to serve the needs of the displaced communities from Burma living in very challenging, crowded circumstances in the camps. This has not happened in the Justice and Protection sector, requiring those responsible to be held to account.

The message that we have received from the rulings found in our research is that violence towards women is not taken seriously, and that it is not an issue that requires action by the authorities. Conversely, the message to violent men is that it’s okay to beat or rape women. Many people in the camps are very alarmed by this ongoing impunity, including men. Karen men and women do not want to see their sisters, aunts, daughters or mothers being hurt; adding to the injustice is that no action is taken to protect them from further harm.

Many of the cases from our research were domestic cases—70 percent—and therefore we found that there is a strong tendency for people to shy away from addressing instances of violence by calling them family affairs that should not be interfered with. In all types of violence against women, there is also a tendency to blame the victim rather than the perpetrator. We need changes within the social and judicial systems, recognizing that the blame and punishment should be placed solely on the perpetrator and not the victim.

Lately there has been a lot of talk about the possibility of refugee repatriation. Many actions and events are being interpreted as push factors for refugee return, such as cuts in services and food rations by INGOs, the October 2015 ceasefire agreements, and the November election results.  The findings of our report, while alarming, should not be used as another excuse for increasing the pressure on refugees to return. The findings of our report demonstrate the widespread and pervasive nature of violence against women in our society. Whether it is state-sanctioned violence perpetrated by soldiers, or violence that is allowed to spread in the community due to failures in the justice system, it is unacceptable. The World Health Organization has called violence against women a global epidemic; it is not a problem found only in refugee camps or in Burma, but all around the world. One in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime.

The push factors for refugee return should be that refugees can envisage a safe and dignified return. Right now such a return is not possible. Landmines and increasing presence of the Burmese military continue to threaten our communities in Karen State. While the peace process is perceived as a key factor in refugee return, it remains a serious concern to us, as women, that this process has been predominantly led by men. We don’t think there is a chance for real peace or justice until women are able to take stock in the peace process to ensure the security of themselves and their communities. The leadership must begin to address gender inequality and accept that women take part in every aspect of managing our community and country, starting with this peace process.

In terms of justice in Burma, despite reform in some sectors, the judicial system remains under the control of the Burmese military, which is an all-male institution. The military in Burma is well known for their recurrent use of rape as a weapon of war against ethnic nationalities.

We know from the experiences of other countries that providing substantial and comprehensive justice responses to sexual- and gender-based violence is effective in reducing violence against women. The justice system must send a clear message to the perpetrators, community and the society at large that violence against women is not tolerated: By ensuring that perpetrators receive due punishment for their crimes.

Through this report, we hope that the justice systems in the refugee camps are reformed so that our community can properly respond to the suffering of women. Given the right support, camp committees can create a better justice system. We hope that INGOs, UNHCR, donors and other agencies will welcome our report’s evidence and insight and view its findings as an opportunity to support the camp committees to reform the justice system.

There should be no delay in providing justice for victims of all violence, including the sexual- and gender-based violence in the refugee camps. We must strengthen the justice system in the camps so that this system can help refugees prepare for a safe and dignified return to Burma when the time is right. However, there is still a lot of work ahead.
KWO’s new report, “Salt in the Wound: Justice Outcomes and SGBV Cases in the Karen refugee camps, 2011-13,” is available to download from the KWO website in English and Karen language.

Naw K’nyaw Paw Nimrod is the secretary of Karen Women’s Organization (KWO).

This article was edited on Nov. 30 to clarify views about violence against women among the Karen community.