“In Mon State, a 13-year-old disabled girl was raped in a village. The police kept on transferring the case from one place to another. After more than 12 days, a police officer called his wife to examine the girl for vaginal injury and semen to prove the rape. The wife of police officer explained that she didn’t find any evidence on the girl. The village administrative bodies forced the girl to marry the perpetrator.”
This anecdote was one among nearly a dozen accounts collated by NGOs and submitted to the UN ahead of a review of women’s rights in Geneva yesterday. The shadow report provides a 43-page testament to the substantial and entrenched barriers women in Myanmar confront while trying to access justice.
The evidence submitted to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) reveals how survivors of rape, domestic violence and sexual assault are often retraumatised in the process of legal proceedings.
The report, compiled by the coalition CEDAW Action Myanmar, notes that the first barrier is often a well-justified fear of reporting the violence, with the 700 rape cases tallied annually likely severely under-representing the scope of the problem.
“The police – usually the first port of call for rape survivors wanting to make a report – can also be insensitive, poorly trained, and sometimes corrupt, according to activists,” the report notes.
In addition to being forced to marry the perpetrators, cultural taboos mean survivors are often blamed for the attacks, or, in cases of domestic violence, when justice is delivered the women may suffer economically, left to support their families alone as their husbands are imprisoned.
Daw Hla Hla Yee, one of the contributors to the report and a director at a legal clinic which provides free assistance to women in Yangon, called on the government to urgently tackle sexual violence.
“Better policies can only be formed if the government admits that sexual violence is a serious issue that needs immediate attention,” she told The Myanmar Times.
The joint report submitted to the CEDAW committee also highlighted a pressing need for legal reforms to better protect the rights of women, especially in rural areas.
In another anecdote, a recent case in Labutta township, a village leader raped a girl with a disability but the case was never reported to the police. In such cases, social stigma and women’s position of economic dependence can result in abuses being perpetrated with impunity.
A human rights lawyer from Kayah State quoted in the report slammed the current legal system as a major challenge in putting perpetrators behind bars.
“If only we had strong evidence the abuser would have been sentenced to life in prison,” she said. “As we could not provide full evidence such as vaginal injury, semen, clothes and medical records, the case was turned to attempt to rape and the perpetrator was only sentenced to five years’ imprisonment.”
Among 226 women and 83 men surveyed by the report, over 90 percent said they had been coerced to have sex themselves; had suffered forms of violence by their intimate partners, relatives, or military personnel; or had heard of such attacks happening in their community.
“My husband raped me when he was drunk. Every time I refuse to have sex, he kicks me. I’m afraid to leave because my children would then grow up without their father,” a woman from Mone Paw village, in southern Shan State, said.
The report also included accounts of soldiers forcing women from rural areas to have sex with them, but then abandoning the women once they became pregnant.
Rights groups have long cited the culture of impunity as one of the elements fuelling sexual violence. Even the constitution – which cannot be changed without military approval –ensures that members of the Tatmadaw can be protected from standing trial for rape.
Myanmar ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1997, and was last reviewed by the UN panel in 2008.
Yesterday’s review – with a delegation headed by U Maung Wai and including members of the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and police – was also the first international scrutiny of women’s rights under the National League for Democracy-backed government.
The upcoming review and Myanmar’s implementation of the committee’s recommendations will be a test of the new government’s commitment to ensuring that democratic reforms address the needs and rights of women and girls across the country.
A member of United Nations Working Group on Women, the Global Justice Center (GJC) said women in Myanmar remain “woefully” underrepresented at all levels of government despite Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership.
GJC’s special counsel Michelle Onello called on the government to formulate and implement effective, well-funded policies to ensure women’s equality.
GJC recommended conducting a gender impact review of all laws, amending or repealing all discriminatory laws, establishing a national level mechanism to advance women’s rights, and devoting 5pc of the budget to address gender inequality.
“No law should interfere with a woman’s right to make her own decision regarding marriage, birth spacing, reproductive choices or religious conversion,” she told The Myanmar Times.
Recommendations provided by the shadow report include: increasing shelters for survivors of sexual violence from their current “almost non-existent” status, reviewing the legal definition of rape, ensuring survivors have access to trained medical professionals and counsellors, adopting a definition for domestic violence, and providing sensitivity and awareness training for all levels of the justice system, from police officers to lawyers and judges.
“The state should ensure its due obligation towards women regardless of race, religion, social status, marital status, age, disability,” the report said.