Guest Column

Breaking the Devil’s Silence: Sexual Violence in Myanmar

By Aye Theri Kyaw 19 August 2017

Reported rape cases have sky-rocketed in recent years in Myanmar, with the majority of rape survivors being under-aged girls. According to the national police records, there were approximately 1,100 reported rape cases in 2016, 670 of which involved victims who were underage girls.  These statistics make clear that we need to address sexual violence against girls in Myanmar society from multiple levels—legislation and policy work is critical, but so is changing norms around sex, sexuality, and women’s rights.

There is no direct definition of the word “rape” in Myanmar language but it can be translated as “ma dain.”  In Myanmar society, the word “ma dain” is a very nasty word and is commonly used as an excuse to restrict the public life of girls and women. The World Health Organization defines rape as “forced or coerced sex; the use of force, coercion or psychological intimidation by one person that requires another person to engage in a sex act against her or his will, whether or not the act is completed.”

There are a wide range of topics to be taken into account if we want to address the current sexual violence against girls.  The following sections underscore that we need to consider Myanmar culture and context concerning women’s rights and sexuality, evaluate current efforts, and find the gaps.

Victim Blaming Attitude

Myanmar is a deeply patriarchal and conservative country where families of rape survivors hesitate to seek help and justice because there is a risk to one’s reputation that comes with sexual abuse. Many people still believe that part of the reason why rape occurs is due to the actions of the victim—that rape is the victim’s fault. Even though many people acknowledge that the perpetrators are solely responsible for their actions, the label of “rape survivor” brings with it social stigma. The rape victim carries the scar for the rest of their life. Given the depth of this shame, many people believe that the recent spate of rape cases is only the tip of the ice-berg, given that many rape cases go unreported due to stigma around sexual violence.

Introducing Sex Education

Talking about sex in public is a social taboo in Myanmar society, and introducing sex education in school is a controversial issue. Myanmar parents feel it is unsuitable for children to know about sex from a very young age. Yet, many progressive thinkers believe that the conservative culture ignores the evil knocking at girls’ doors.

A rape case in Ayeyarwaddy division where a 36-year-old teacher raped two of his students—14- and 15-year old girls—has signaled the need for sex education in the school. He has been given a 40-year sentence by the court. Although many people agree with this sentence, the case still begs the question of how often such justice is actually pursued. Two years ago, a well-known Myanmar actor was charged with a life sentence for killing a female employee. But the news, months later, that his life-sentence was reduced to a 10-year sentence underscores the impunity with which men harm women, and the way they perceive the laws in place to penalize such actions.

Attempts to Hold Perpetrators Accountable

It is the perpetrators who must be held accountable for their actions, and the perpetrators who must pay the price for their actions. Not our girls.

In 2013, and 2015, U Thein Nyunt, a Member of Parliament introduced the death penalty for those convicted of raping children under 16. His attempts twice ended in failure. In November 2016, 500 people assembled in Yangon demonstrating for “death penalty for the perpetrators,” with the general public joining the campaign and expressing their anger towards the recent increase in rape cases.

Distrust Towards Current Judicial Practice 

The years under the military regime corrupted Myanmar’s pillar of justice: the judiciary. The lack of an independent judiciary under military rule has bred a culture of impunity for many years. Rape survivors and their families express distrust towards judges and the wider system because they face long proceedings in court cases, and corruption in the judicial system.  Therefore, the system itself is discouraging victims and their families from seeking justice, as opposed to protecting them. A situational analysis on gender equality and women’s rights in Myanmar highlighted this distrust towards the legal system, describing it as the root cause of unwillingness to report rape.

Child Law Reforms

The 1993 Child Law did not mention child rape. However, rapists of children and adults can incur a seven-to-10-year jail term under section 376 of the Penal Code.  In November 2016, the Myanmar government revised the law to increase the punishment from 10 years to a life-sentence, along with a monetary fine for rape of a minor. However, this revised law has not yet materialized on the ground. In the law, the punishment for rape ranges from 10 years imprisonment to a life sentence, but sentences are always shorter than the 10 year minimum, say lawyers and activists.  Nevertheless, the current 1993 law deals broadly with the care, education and protection of children. There needs to be a specific child law against sexual violence.

Extensive Research 

In 2015-16, a demographic and health survey took place across the states and regions, and it included questions on sexual violence. The study interviewed 632 girls aged 15-19 and found that 1 percent of that age group had experienced sexual violence in their lifetime, with 0.7 percent responding that they had experienced sexual violence in the past 12 months. In 2014, a qualitative study by Gender Equality Network that included interviews with 40 women from Yangon, Mandalay and Mawlamyine showed the seriousness of the problem, as half of the sample said they were raped or sexually assaulted in the past.  While valuable, these two reports deal broadly with other research questions and therefore, a specific research study on sexual violence for the general population is critical at this stage to understand why this is suddenly on the rise.

More Work on Psychological Consequences

Consequences of sexual violence, such as unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases are substantial, yet, as important as it is to care for the physical consequences and unwanted pregnancies, the psychological well-being of survivors of sexual abuse is paramount. There has not been much work that focuses on long term psycho-social effects of such violence on survivors. A study by Gender Equality Network said that the extent to which victims deal with the consequences also has an impact on their sexual reputation. Yet, just as more research is needed on sexual violence, more work needs to carry out to find out what coping strategies victims depend on, and what services might be made available for them.

Improving laws and court proceedings is not enough to address the issue. We must also teach the younger generation to have respect for both sexes, and to reject unjust actions. This is a step towards creating a better society. Simply raising awareness is not enough. Society as a whole is responsible for changing the victim-blaming attitude and the double standards for women that are prevalent in Myanmar.

Aye Thiri Kyaw researches gender, women’s rights, health, and violence against women. She is a co-author of “Behind the silence: violence against women and their resilience in Myanmar,” and recently co-authored a journal article in Gender and Society. She studied Health Social Science at Mahidol University, Thailand.

This article originally appeared in Tea Circle, a forum hosted at Oxford University for emerging research and perspectives on Burma/Myanmar.

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