Guest Column

A Shared Responsibility to Protect Victims of Gender-Based Violence

By Naw K’nyaw Paw & Maggi Quadrini 29 November 2019

Every year between Nov. 25 and Dec. 10, the 16 Days of Activism Campaign gives visibility to the epidemic of violence against women and girls in various forms. The international campaign amplifies voices from women’s organizations, allies and networks to share one, unified message—that violence against women is never acceptable and should not be tolerated. According to UN Women, at least one in every three women will experience some form of violence in their lifetime. It is an epidemic ingrained in the fabric of many cultures, which gives a pathway for patriarchal attitudes to be adopted and thrive.

Accountability for violence committed against women and children in Myanmar is compromised by weak rule of law and a poor use of judgment by those with power. By bridging awareness and accountability, the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO) has selected the theme of “Use Your Power to Protect” for the 16 Days of Activism campaign. This is intended to bring attention to the responsibility stakeholders have to use their power with a moral compass in mind, by acting with empathy to serve survivors of violence. Under the law, everyone is equal and yet women and children remain the most vulnerable in violent circumstances and lack accessible channels to justice. In many situations, the blame for the crime committed is put on the woman and has resulted in a biased, unfair system that fails to dignify survivors in their time of need and crisis.

There are many challenges in the system that have made it difficult to push forward meaningful legislation that would do more to protect women from violence. Key stakeholders involved in the drafting of the proposed Protection and Prevention of Violence Against Women (POVAW) law has slowed the process of advancing the bill, which was drafted in 2013. Myanmar has several obligations at both the international and domestic levels to combat violence against women, including the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). However, the 2008 military-drafted Constitution makes the commitment to protect and uphold women’s rights a challenge. Despite Myanmar being a signee, according to the index, there are still 35 discriminatory laws against women. The needs of women must be listened to in order for their concerns to be shared at the local and regional level of policy and laws must be reformed to uphold their rights to be protected.  Leaders at the government and military level have a moral and legal obligation to dismantle systems that prioritize power over protection of survivors.

In a recent, high-profile case that shows the extent of the misuse of power in Myanmar, the rape of a child (dubbed “Victoria” to protect her identity) in Naypyitaw speaks volumes to how far those with power are willing to go to protect perpetrators of violence rather than survivors. Despite evidence to suggest the toddler was allegedly raped at her nursery school in May 2019, CCTV footage which would have proved vital for justice and accountability was “apparently missing or deleted” when it played in court earlier this month. The corrupted files suggest a deliberate attempt to undermine the investigation. Testimonies have been inconsistent and are indicative of a lack of knowledge on how to deal with sexual violence. As the case moves forward, it continues to set a precedent for how power can be abused even under the rule of law—which reinforces a need for stakeholders to truly understand how to be responsible with power.

KWO attempts to strengthen the support survivors receive by providing direct assistance to community members and works to solve social problems in the community. Our Safe House and Women’s Protection project specifically provides direct services for victims of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), through safe emergency housing and case management.  Additionally, this project involves community-based advocacy and education in order to improve prevention and community response to incidents of SGBV targeting youth in schools, and community members. We support a total of 12 Safe Houses in the refugee camps and in Karen State. As part of building our community-based ability to respond to and prevent SGBV we provide specialized training to KWO project staff and leaders who are responsible for social welfare work in the Karen community.

We also proactively strengthen coordination among local SGBV stakeholders. Through meaningful consultations with community members we developed the Automatic Response Mechanism and the Standard Operational Protocol (ARM/SOP) for refugee camps and Karen State. The mechanism helped stakeholders to support women survivors of violence. We have worked with the Karen National Union justice department in improving the Kawthoolie law related to women’s protection and we are also in the process of drafting a special women’s protection law, which will be brought forward to the KNU for their consideration and we anticipate their adoption.

Karen women are not the only women who have been faced with violence in our communities by partners and the military.  Across Myanmar, sexual violence is largely committed with impunity by army personnel, who are protected through military courts under the 2008 military-drafted Constitution. In households, domestic violence has traditionally been considered a “private” matter. Women and children who experience violence are made to feel trapped and isolated. These conditions are coupled with a lack of legal options to grant them security and protection. Attitudes that give violence a space to grow must be reversed.

More awareness and engagement are needed with those who have power and can use it to protect—including members of parliament, the police, the military and ethnic armed organizations to understand how to be an effective ally in times of crisis. There is an opportunity to increase collaboration between the government and civil society on how to do this effectively through gender-sensitivity training and inclusiveness on drafting and finalizing bills on violence prevention. The government of Myanmar must immediately put an end to sexual violence against women and ensure justice for those crimes, and changes must be made to the Constitution, in order to ensure that the military is constitutionally placed under civilian control and that women’s rights are promoted. In the meantime, there is a need to support and strengthen initiatives by women’s groups and local groups such as KWO.

We all have a responsibility to use the power we have as individuals, as collectives, as allies, as women, as men—to protect those with less power than us. In the Karen community, people think that only the leaders have power. However, when individuals motivated by the same calls for change in their experiences stand firmly in saying no to all forms of violence—this is power. Local communities have power and agency and we must not ever forget what is possible when we channel this collective power against oppressive systems and individuals who try to silence us.

Naw K’nyaw Paw is a women’s rights activist and general secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization who has been working with the group for 20 years. Maggi Quadrini works for KWO providing technical support on media-advocacy related projects.