CHIANG MAI, Thailand—This year, #HearMeToo is the hashtag inspiring women all over the world to share their stories of sexual harassment and assault, adding to the large outcry online and on social media, inspired by the original global #MeToo movement, which is also gaining momentum across countries in Asia. The campaign is gaining traction in Myanmar too, thirteen months since its inception in October 2017.
During this year’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, a campaign which commenced around the world on Nov. 25, women and men are raising their views on gender inequality and voicing calls for an end to sexual harassment against women, whether they themselves are victims or not.
Rape, sexual harassment and verbal harassment against women and girls in the workplace are not uncommon in Myanmar. However, accounts of sexual harassment are rarely reported due to deep-rooted social stigmatizations as well as hesitations women have in trusting the law.
According to the government’s Labor Force Survey conducted in 2015, 43 percent of the country’s workforce of 21.8 million are women, but companies—even those in the media industry—often lack specific policies on the prevention of sexual harassment against their female employees.
“The lack of strong legislation to help those women and a lack of legal actions are reasons for women’s hesitation on speaking up because the blame is quickly refuted by the abuser,” said Daw May Sabe Phyu, director of Gender Equality Network (GEN) a network of organizations working for gender equality and women’s rights in Myanmar.
In Myanmar, although sex and sexuality are still taboo topics, more and more rape cases—especially those against minors—are being reported in the mainstream media and the community is showing its supports in protecting both male and female minors.
But in the case of sexual harassment against women, there are often questions about whether it was consensual. The culture of demanding proof—whether from a victim of rape or other forms of sexual harassment—still persists and creates an extra burden on the victim.
Despite the growing call for an end to sexual harassment, in Myanmar, the lack of legal protection alongside social discrimination are principle factors that continue to make it difficult for victims to speak out.
Observers perceive that a positive side of this #MeToo movement is that it gives a voice to women in Myanmar who have been sexually harassed and that it can help raise awareness and prevent cases of harassment in the future.
“We are now at the stage of breaking the silence as [until now] few survivors shared their experiences,” said Daw May Sabe Phyu, adding that in the past it was unimaginable to hear as such stories in public.
“It will also give the warning to men who committed or are going to commit such acts towards women in their work environment that ‘your act will be exposed one day’,” added Daw Mon Mon Myat, writer and editor of women’s magazine, Women Can Do It.
Some #MeToo cases were widely shared on social media here in July and August this year when a number of women wrote about their experiences of being sexually harassed between 2011 and 2013 by a human rights trainer from a non-governmental organization where they had been working.
The case was settled in late November when the abuser was blacklisted by the international donor community. GEN intervened in the cases after receiving complaints. Daw May Sabe Phyu said the cases were “settled in terms of social justice,” as GEN could not provide a legally binding result.
Prevention of sexual harassment needs the support and widespread awareness of the community, especially from the literature institutions, said Ma Zar Chi Oo who last year raised her voice for victims of sexual misconduct by a poet and member of the board of directors of the writers’ association PEN Myanmar, where she used to work. The cases, which occurred in 2015 and she brought to light last year, were settled with the poet being given a “severe warning” with no follow-up of legal proceedings.
As is usually the case, nothing more came of it—the survivors have to live through the trauma while the perpetrators are “warned” and move on with their lives.
#WeToo: A tool for Myanmar too
Myanmar women are not alone in this fight. In neighboring India, China and Thailand, and even our far-in-distance-but-close-in-heart nations like Japan are on a similar path. In Thailand, the social media page Thaiconsent has opened up a space to share the untold stories related to sexual assault against Thai women and creates a space for men and women to discuss consent.
In Vietnam, since the #MeToo movement hit the country and women there have spoken about cases of sexual assault they face, the movement has brought about both positive and negative reactions.
“Public opinion is very strong against the harasser, so it shows that the Vietnam public is starting to be aware of the situation. At the same time, victims suffer a lot from victim-blaming,” Tran Le Thuy, director of the Center for Media and Development Initiatives in Hanoi, Vietnam told The Irrawaddy.
Both in Myanmar and elsewhere, although it is getting easier for survivors to speak out on their experiences of sexual violence, the number of women with the courage to do so is still only a small percentage of the actual number of victims.
“There are so many out there who have similar experiences and cannot even say #MeToo, but are saying it in their hearts,” said a Japanese journalist Shiori Ito recently. The practicing journalist spoke out after the 2015 case in which she accused a prominent broadcast journalist of rape was dropped due to a lack of evidence. The existing judicial system in Japan does not work to support her or other victims of sexual abuse. She has decided to document her fruitless experiences in seeking justice in her book, Black Box.
She urges others to show support for victims of sexual assault by saying “I believe you.” Shiori, who is now a key campaigner for the movement in the region, told her powerful story to the attendees at the Asian Investigative Journalists Conference held in Seoul in October.
Shiori’s experiences, along with countless others’, are representative of how Asian society and legal supports here tend to favor the perpetrators.
At the same event, a Japanese media researcher Kimiko Aoki, now in her mid-fifties, said that in Japan women entered the workforce only after the Second World War and so her generation were able to “cope with [sexual harassment],” because “for a long time, touching breasts and a lot of things were [treated] like a joke.”
“Seeing Shiori’s suffering and seeing and hearing of others, I feel like we do need to voice what we come through and what we have experienced. I feel responsible and I have colleagues who say the same. I think voicing is important,” she told The Irrawaddy. Kimiko said that nowadays the idea of sexual harassment has been acknowledged in Japan and people understand that it is a problem.
In another high-profile case spurred on by the #MeToo movement, Japan’s vice minister of finance resigned in April after being accused of rape.
Individual fights against sexual violence are difficult in patriarchal societies which often accept the culture of blaming women. In Asian culture, as women may be judged for falling prey to sexual assault, #MeToo could also have unwanted negative impacts on the individual’s life. For this reason, a more collective message, such as the tag #WeToo, may be more useful and would encourage anyone who is against sexual harassment to stand up and show support regardless of their gender.
“WeToo could be a tool,” said Kimiko. “I hope that MeToo and WeToo will go hand in hand and cross borders because we are closer in nature than the West and the culture of silence is stronger in Asia. I hope we encourage each other.”
The Irrawaddy reporter Nyein Nyein was a recipient of a fellowship supported by the Global Investigate Journalism Network and its partner organizations at the 3rd Asian Investigative Journalism Conference held in Seoul in early October this year.