‘Domestic violence exists everywhere’

A paucity of sexual assault laws and sexist norms in society mean violence against women is widespread in Myanmar society and accepted by families, communities and government, said Ma Htar Htar, the director of Akhaya, a Yangon-based organisation focussed on women’s empowerment.

11 December 2014 | Written by Portia Larlee

Gender equality advocates tackle sexist legislation, cultural norms

The personal is political, especially with respect to violence against women in Myanmar, said Ma Htar Htar in her Yangon office, its walls plastered with “Women lead!” and “End sexual violence!” posters.

A paucity of sexual assault laws and sexist norms in society mean violence against women is widespread in Myanmar society and accepted by families, communities and government, said Ma Htar Htar, the director of Akhaya, a Yangon-based organisation focussed on women’s empowerment.

The issue of sexual violence perpetuated by government armed forces was exposed in a report by the Women’s League of Burma, released on November 25. It called for the uprooting of “the culture of impunity which surrounds sexual violence and prevents survivors from obtaining justice.”

The report If they had hope, they would speak: The ongoing use of state-sponsored sexual violence in Burma’s ethnic communities, follows release in January of the organisation’s ground-breaking compilation of reports about rape and sexual violence by Tatmadaw forces throughout the country.

Between January and June the Women’s League of Burma recorded another 14 cases of rape and sexual assault.

The report described sexual violence during armed conflict as “a counter-insurgency strategy … closely tied to control over resource-rich ethnic areas,” and called for increased women’s participation in the nationwide ceasefire and peace process.

“The prevalence of gang-rape is a direct result of [Myanmar’s] Constitution situating the military above human rights and norms of international law,” said the report, which condemned Article 20(b) of the Constitution for effectively providing the Tatmadaw with impunity from prosecution.

The Women’s League of Burma also criticised the government’s National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women – a framework for different ministries to advance women’s rights and gender equality in areas such as education, health and the economy – and called attention to its slow implementation.

Rape is criminalised under Article 375 of the Myanmar Penal Code, but a “lack of transparency in [Myanmar’s] judicial system undermines … the ability of survivors of sexual violence to achieve redress, reparations and rehabilitation,” said the report.

Marital rape is legal in Myanmar and harmful conceptions about gender and sex are fuelled by the discriminatory legal environment, said Ma Htar Htar.

Hundreds of women have visited Akhaya and some – of limited resources – have told of their experiences as victims of rape and sexual assault. Akhaya aims to work with three partner organisations to provide Myanmar’s first comprehensive services for survivors of sexual violence, including counselling, legal aid and shelter.

An analysis of services in Yangon for survivors of sexual violence is due to begin this year, followed by the development of a budget plan and the launch of a one-year pilot program.

“Domestic violence exists everywhere and is part of normal life in Myanmar; we don’t discuss rape and we don’t report it,” said Ma Htar Htar, referring to harmful cultural attitudes. “There is no such thing as marital rape in our law or our conversation; awareness levels are not there yet.”

Sexual activity is stigmitised for women in Myanmar, who experience a stark double standard.

“Nobody asks a man, ‘Are you a virgin?’ But we are always looking at women, questioning them, ‘protecting’ them,” said Ma Htar Htar.

“If you are not a virgin, you are gone, you are out of society, school, religion, you are blamed and looked at badly,” she said.

Akhaya runs weekly women empowerment workshops focussed on debunking myths about sexuality. Ma Htar Htar said loosing one’s “virgin-hymen” – two concepts combined to form one word in Myanmar – is a recurring concern discussed during gatherings.

Virginity is not something someone can “check,” said Ma Htar Htar who works with her groups to deconstruct the concept of virginity.

“No one – apart from yourself – can identify you as a virgin, and a hymen is like your nose, each one is different,” she said. “It’s not a neat and tidy thing.”

The Gender Equality Network, a group of more than 100 NGOs that is collaborating with the Ministry of Social Welfare to enact an anti-sexual assualt law, interviewed 38 women survivors of intimate partner violence in Yangon and Mawlamyine, for its report released in October.

The report Behind the Silence: Violence Against Women and their Resilience called for the establishment of shelters for survivors of domestic violence and support for women experiencing mental and physical health issues after being abused.

Interestingly, few respondents identified their experiences as rape, but many described being forced to have sex. The study pointed to “men’s sexual entitlement” as a recurrent theme throughout the reports.

“I always say the brain is the most important sex organ,” said Ma Htar Htar. “Men have a responsibility, but men are not raised to control themselves.”

Seeking help after experiencing sexual violence is difficult in Myanmar, due to stigmitisation and lack of services.

According to the GEN report, “there were overall expectations that people would not interfere in domestic disputes between husband and wife,” and that, “widespread beliefs of women’s inferiority to men tended to affect women’s ability to deal with abuse in a practical and active way.”

Ma Htar Htar said survivors of sexual violence are often sent from hospital to hospital and then referred to police. She plans to work with police to review cases and ensure the correct information has been recorded and use the media to focus attention on court proceedings because they tend to be delayed and prolonged.

Developing Myanmar’s first services for survivors of sexual violence is a huge task that will require being registered under the Association Law and securing funding.

“We will build a huge shelter and offer comprehensive services; this is big, we have to do it,” said Ma Htar Htar.

This Article first appeared in the December 4, 2014 edition of Mizzima Business Weekly.

SOURCE www.mizzima.com