5 Minutes To Read

Sexual violence against women and girls: A year in review

5 Minutes To Read

Janeen Sawatzkyreflects on the state of women’s and girls’ rights in Myanmar.

Image courtesy of Human Rights Foundation of Monland (HURFOM)

Another year has drawn to a close and the global calls for the end of violence against women and girls which occur every November 25th on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women are still fresh in our minds. It led us here at the Human Rights Foundation of Monland (HURFOM) to reflect on the progress (or lack thereof) we have seen over the past year in Burma in protecting and promoting the rights of women and young girls.

What we have seen has been dissatisfying to say the least. Official police statistics and community-based organizations (CBOs) continue to report an upward trend in reports of sexual violence against both women and children, and the increase in the number of reported cases involving children is particularly troublesome. In February, the Ministry of Home Affairs released crime statistics for 2017, which showed that 1,405 rapes were reported across Burma in 2017, including 897 cases against children—an increase of over 33% from the previous year.

The Human Rights Foundation of Monland (HURFOM) itself saw an 83% increase in the number of reported cases of sexual violence against children received over the last 12 months, as well as an 11-fold increase in reported cases since it first began to monitor the issue in 2013 through its Women and Child Rights Project. This follows a trend seen around many parts of Burma, which has led to widespread media coverage and public outrage. Whether this increasing trend is due to more awareness and education, which, among other things, is leading to higher rates of reporting, or that the actual number of cases of sexual violence towards women and girls is increasing is uncertain, but more research needs to be done in order to fully understand the phenomenon.

There is no doubt that the actual number of cases is much higher than what is reported, as traditional beliefs and the accompanying stigma surrounding sexual violence lead many survivors to remain silent. This is compounded by a lack of faith in formal legal systems, sustained in part by the difficulty in accessing justice when navigating Burma’s overlapping jurisdictions and plural legal system in its politically complex and ethnically diverse states and regions. For many, these challenges alone create sufficient disincentives to reporting crime of a sexual nature.

It seems unlikely that this upward trend will reverse anytime soon, as the government’s response has been to blame the survivors. In a show of just how far they are from understanding the problem of sexual violence against women and girls, the Ministry of Home Affairs released a 5-page document in February 2018 which blamed female behavior, including revealing too much skin and drinking alcohol, as some of the causes of rape. This clearly shows that sex and gender equality training at all levels of government is needed in order to eliminate harmful beliefs surrounding sexual violence.

In addition, the Prevention and Protection of Violence against Women Bill has languished in development since 2013. However, despite spending the past 5 years wending its way through various ministries, revisions, and debate in parliament, the bill may be set for an early 2019 release. Women and girls urgently need specific legal protection from gender-based violence including domestic violence, marital rape, sexual violence, and harassment and assault in the workplace and public spaces, which the bill would provide according to women’s rights activists who worked on the legislation. By passing the Prevention and Protection of Violence against Women Bill the Burma government could signal its seriousness about promoting and protecting the rights of women and girls.

Furthermore, Burma’s domestic legislation concerning gender-based violence, particularly against children, is antiquated and inadequate. All of the cases that HURFOM documented in 2018, and which were brought to trial, used the 1861 Penal Code. Although this does contain provisions for the offence of rape — up to ten years in prison, as well as the possibility of a fine—there are no sections that pertain specifically to the violent or sexual abuse of children. Furthermore, in some cases sexual violence against minors is legitimized, as marital rape in cases where the wife is not under the age of 12 is legally codified, (see, Burma Penal Code, Section 376). One of the main criticisms of the current legal response to the upward trend in sexual violence against children is the light sentences perpetrators receive after being convicted in court, which often fall far short of the maximum ten years in prison stipulated by the Penal Code.

Another dimension to the problem documented by HURFOM is the lack of justice for survivors of sexual violence who do report to either the police or village-level administration. Families spoke to us about serious failings in the judicial system, which let them down when they tried to seek justice for these crimes, at both the village administration level and state-level justice system.

If pursuing justice through the legal system, the time and costs associated with travelling to a more urban location may preclude villagers from accessing state-level justice systems. This is exacerbated by the extended length of most trials, necessitating dozens of trips over the trial proceedings. Language barriers, too, pose a significant problem for non-Burmese speaking villagers when navigating the government legal system, both when reporting to the police and when following court proceedings. Furthermore, corruption, as well as a lack of trust in state- and union-level administrative bodies, creates disincentives for villagers to seek justice from government bodies.

Geographically remote villages may lack a continuous police presence, if they have one at all, making local administration the only choice when reporting a crime. Over half of the families we spoke to for our July 2018 report, “A Girl’s Life Was Destroyed”, told us they reported an instance of sexual violence first to village administrators. Seeking justice at the village-level often means that cases are not taken to court, but instead settled by negotiation, which often involves the perpetrator paying compensation to the survivor or their family. This often means survivors and their families who wish to have the offender prosecuted in a court of law, and not all of them do, must accept compensation instead, which is exacerbated by poverty and the time and costs associated with pursuing state-level justice mechanisms as outlined above. HURFOM has documented several cases of survivors and their families rejecting compensation in lieu of punishment in order to pursue a legal case against the perpetrator or as a moral stance in order to deter future violators.

If government and police bodies want to see any change in the numbers of reported cases of sexual violence against women and particularly young girls, they must act now to protect vulnerable members of Burma society from abuse. This must include adopting a modern and coherent child protection policy; ensuring higher participation of women in judicial systems and processes, including juries; educating all parties involved in legal and judicial processes on sexual violence and gender equality; abolishing provisions in the penal code that allow for sexual violence; eliminating the use of customary law and village-level arbitration and compensation as a method of settling cases of sexual violence; and moving forward with the Prevention and Protection of Violence against Women Bill in consultation with civil society.

Unless such concrete efforts are undertaken, sexual violence and abuse towards women and children will continue.

Janeen Sawatzky is the Senior Researcher at the Human Rights Foundation of Monland (HURFOM). She has previously worked with Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) as a Research Fellow and Capacity Building Manager and Phandeeyar as a Senior Program Manager.