YANGON—Women’s rights groups in Myanmar have demanded for a long-awaited law preventing violence against women to be enacted as soon as possible, saying it would better protect women and girls from violence.
More than 30 civil society organizations kicked off 16 days of activism on Sunday as part of a global campaign to end gender-based violence under the theme “Prevent Violence Against Women by the Law.”
The campaign, involving a film festival and awareness-raising events, will be held from Nov. 25 to Dec. 10 in major cities around Myanmar including Yangon and is being organized by an activism working group comprised of members of 39 organizations. The campaign aims to raise public awareness in eliminating violence against women and calls for the enactment of a law preventing violence against women.
In a statement released on Sunday, the Women’s League of Burma (WLB), one of the members of the working group involved in the 16-day campaign, said rape and sexual assault against women and girls are on the rise in Myanmar, with 1,100 cases reported to police in 2016, and 1405 cases in 2017.
Challenges in obtaining justice for survivors of violence and a culture of impunity for rapists, especially in conflict areas, encourage more violent cases, it stated.
“The existing laws don’t effectively protect women from violence,” the WLB statement said, reiterating the urgent need to protect women from all forms of violence with separate legal protection.
Being the only ASEAN country without special laws focused on the protection of women, Myanmar currently practices the outdated British colonial-era Penal Code, which describes the offenses and penalties for sexual violence against women in generic terms.
Since 2013, the country’s first law protecting women specifically, the Protection and Prevention of Violence against Women Law (PoVAW,) has been in development. Once it is enacted, women’s rights activists hope it will prevent violence against women at home and sexual harassment in the workplace and public areas, as well as providing more effective legal and medical support for survivors of violence.
The activist group also demanded that rape cases committed by members of armed groups in conflict areas be investigated according to this law.
After five years of waiting, the bill has now been finalized but is yet to be submitted to Parliament.
“I can’t understand why it is taking so long to pass the bill into law compared to any other bills,” Lway Poe Ngal, general secretary of the WLB, said.
“It is not a good sign. We are seeing an increasing number of sexual violence cases. Also, many rape cases committed by neighbors and family members are happening. If we don’t have a specific law to tackle it, it is sure the condition will become worse than now,” she said.
When in January 2017 it was mentioned by a parliamentarian committee that a set of four existing race and religion laws would have to be amended in order for the proposed PoVAW law to be enacted, there was uproar from a prominent Buddhist nationalist group.
Members of the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion—a group more commonly known by its Burmese acronym “Ma Ba Tha” and now banned by the government—reacted quickly, threatening nationwide demonstrations.
The controversial set of four race and religion laws was initially pushed by Ma Ba Tha in 2014 and formally adopted by former President U Thein Sein’s government in 2015.
From the outset, women’s rights groups have criticized the set of laws, saying they further restrict women’s equality and freedom and religious minorities.
During a parliamentary session on Tuesday, Upper House lawmaker Naw Susana Hla Hla Soe asked for an update on the development of the law. U Soe Aung, deputy minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement, said the ministry has been negotiating with the relevant departments for the development of the law and that it hopes to be able to enact it in 2019.
Heads of the Mission of the European Union Delegation and EU Member States to Myanmar joined the call of the women’s rights groups. In a statement it released on Sunday, it called on the Myanmar government to adopt the PoVAW law in compliance with the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which Myanmar ratified in 1997.
“We are very concerned by recent surveys revealing widespread acceptance within Myanmar of violence against women,” it stated.
“Keeping silent about this is not an option. We must hear the voice of women, in the
workplace, in politics, and in the private sphere of the home.”
Ending the culture of silence
Global movements and campaigns highlighting misconduct against women, such as #MeToo, have taken root in Myanmar too. In July this year, several women took to social media to speak out about incidents of harassment they faced while working in a local human rights and women’s empowerment organization.
They directed accusations against the chief executive officer of the organization, speaking out about sexual assaults they had been subjected to at their former office. The movement prompted an investigation of the accused person and gave light to cases of sexual harassment that women have long faced in the workplace.
One of the women told The Irrawaddy that she shared her story on Facebook in order to encourage other victims to speak out.
“If we keep silent, other women might face the same that we faced and no action would be taken against the perpetrator, leaving him to commit the same to other women and girls,” she said.
Yet a lack of policy against sexual harassment in organizations and no clear complaint procedure would discourage the survivors from filing complaints, she said, adding that making services accessible to all survivors of violence as well as legal support is needed.
“Women also need to know their rights,” she stressed, urging rights groups to conduct more awareness campaigns for women in the community to understand their rights as well as sexual violence.