Two weeks ago, Malar (not her real name) went to the police station in her township on two occasions to report the domestic abuse she had been facing. The police did not take her case seriously and sent her home. She told me that during her attempts to make a report with the police, she wasn’t even given a chance to show documentation of her physical injuries from the hospital.
Another woman approached me in a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) in Rakhine State, and asked for help to find an IDP girl who went missing from her camp. According to the woman, the young girl traveled to Yangon with a view to attending school there because she feared being sexually harassed on her way to the school in the camp.
Whether in the conflict zones of Kachin, Shan, or Rakhine, or whether in the streets of Mandalay, such stories are not unusual in Myanmar because domestic abuse and sexual harassment continue to be culturally acceptable and have not received enough attention under national laws.
Culturally, wife-beating is still not widely believed to be a social problem in Myanmar’s context.
The 2015-16 Demographic and Health Survey, implemented by the Ministry of Health and Sports with the support of USAID and the Three Millennium Development Goal Fund (3MDG), indicates that 51% of women and 49% of men were of the view that a husband is justified in beating his wife. Social acceptance of this behavior is also reflected in the popular saying, “If you break her bone into pieces, you will be loved by her whole-heartedly.” Social acceptance of domestic violence is still rife because the majority of people still hold the belief that it is a private family issue which should only be resolved by the couple themselves, whether they live in a village, a city, or a displacement camp.
Participation of women in leadership and decision-making positions is extremely low in Myanmar. There are still no women among the 330 township administrators in Myanmar. Similarly, camp management committees (CMCs), which were established by the government to facilitate the management of displacement camps in different parts of the country, have a very low representation of women. This makes it very difficult for women and girls in these camps to share their concerns and feedback.
In Myanmar, many people use the common expression that “a woman’s dignity and grace cannot be exchanged for gold” to describe womanhood. This saying is often accompanied by the phrase “Ah pyo sin,” which means “virgin” to wit: the purity of a woman is measured by her virginity. When she loses her virginity before marriage, a woman and her family members may be subjected to social stigma. As a preventive measure, families tend to excessively scrutinize the lifestyles of young women who are not married.
Tragically, these societal expectations have also been used as a justification to pressure women and girls who have encountered sexual assault to remain silent in order to preserve the reputation of the family. These strict, gendered norms around what it means to be “a good woman” often restrict the mobility of women and their ability to engage in public activities.
Spontaneous campaigns such as #MeToo have widened the space for debate and created opportunities for women in many countries, including Myanmar, to speak about their experiences of sexual harassment and abuse. In doing so, the #MeToo movement has reinforced the message that sexual assault, regardless of where it takes place, is unacceptable and must be denounced.
But what about those who are still unable to say “#MeToo” in Myanmar?
While awareness has increased since the #MeToo campaign gained momentum, not all women have the same opportunities to share their concerns.
Findings from a 2014 study commissioned by the Gender Equality Network revealed that half of the women interviewed in Myanmar preferred not to disclose their experiences of sexual harassment and abuse because of victim-blaming and public humiliation.
Women and girls who have been displaced by conflict in Myanmar are repeatedly exposed to violence. In a 2017 qualitative study involving interviews and focus groups with women from 12 displacement camps in Kachin State, women shared their experiences of physical and sexual violence since the conflict restarted in 2011. The study highlighted the social and cultural barriers that conflict-affected women face in making their voices heard. Violence against women and girls in humanitarian settings encompasses real protection risks such as human trafficking, forced labor, restrictions on freedom of movement, safety concerns, and limited access to health and support services for survivors of gender-based violence.
Nevertheless, there have been some major efforts towards promoting women’s rights issues and addressing gender-based violence in Myanmar.
One of the key national policies and plans launched is the National Strategic Action Plan for the Advancement of Women (2013-2022) which has violence against women and women in emergencies as two of the 12 priority areas. Across the humanitarian sector, the 2015 Guidelines for Integrating Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings and Gender in Humanitarian Action guidelines support the work of humanitarian organizations responding to gender-based violence. And Prevention and Protection against Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) is a key element of the 2019 Myanmar Humanitarian Response Plan.
A network of humanitarian stakeholders has been established to strengthen efforts to address sexual harassment, exploitation, and abuse in humanitarian contexts in Myanmar. The theme for the 2018 campaign for the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence is #hearmetoo, recognizing the need to continue amplifying the voices of women and build on the momentum created by the #MeToo movement. This could help bring more attention to the plight of women, especially those facing complex humanitarian crises in the country. Civil society organizations, the UN, INGOs and the government of Myanmar have also been working on drafting a bill called the Prevention of Violence Against Women (PoVAW) for five years.
Once the law is passed, women like Malar who experience domestic abuse would be protected by the law. Perpetrators of such acts could be held accountable for their abusive behavior.
Once the law is passed, we can have more scope to prevent sexual harassment so that IDP women and girls do not have to worry anymore about going to and from school, or even the bathroom. This law must be urgently passed to help protect women across the country from all forms of violence.
The government of Myanmar, as the primary duty bearer, must accelerate efforts to pass a comprehensive law to tackle violence against women and girls across all fourteen states and regions of Myanmar.
Aye Thiri Kyaw is a writer and researcher on sexual violence, domestic violence and abuse in Myanmar society.