Project Monma travelled to Burma and Thailand to learn more about the situation of women in girls both in Burma and those living as refugees as migrant workers.
Burma, a country where almost 90% of the population are Buddhist and has also had a long political history fraught with violence. The long running 60-year military dictatorship finally came to an end with the election of Noble Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Su Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) and while Burma is believed to be on a trajectory towards democracy, the country continues to face a number of challenges.
One of which includes violence and discrimination against women which has been called by some human rights advocates as a silent emergency.
Officially, women and girls have equal rights in Burma. The constitution guarantees all persons equal rights and protection before the law and does not discriminate against any Burmese citizen on the basis of sex.
While there is little national data or statistics on violence against women in Burma, in 2008 the CEDAW Committee said that domestic and sexual violence are widespread in Burma. Statistics from UNFPA show that 70 percent of women who have visited centers for women living in conflict affected areas have experienced domestic violence. Sexual violence and harassment have also been reported to be a serious problem in Burma.
Women’s rights advocates attribute the many problems facing women and girls in Burma to discriminatory cultural concepts of honor and shame that often make women responsible for the violence perpetrated towards them by men.
Fighting between the Tatmadaw, the Burmese armed forces and the many ethnic groups in Burma seeking independence has also led to horrendous human rights abuses, including killings, beatings, torture, forced labor and rape. Much of the violence reportedly carried out by the Burmese armed forces.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that there has been around 250 000 people displaced by the violence inside Burma.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees have also fled to neighboring countries and according to OCHA, it is estimated that there are currently around 100 000 people living in refugee camps in Thailand. Neighboring China and Bangladesh have also received high numbers of refugees.
Like in all conflicts, women are often the most vulnerable and in a country still dominated along patriarchal lines women and girls remain especially vulnerable in conflict areas.
The threat of sexual violence has sent thousands of women and girls fleeing to neighbouring countries as refugees to seek safety. However, arrival to refugee camps doesn’t necessarily mean an end to the violence.
Rebeca Cenalmor-Rejas, a protection officer at UNHCR in Mae Sot said that women and girls in the refugee camps often face the same problems inside the camps as they do back home.
‘There are problems with domestic violence and different types of sexual based violence, including with children,’ she explained. ‘It is mostly the other refugees who are doing the sexual abuse. Sometimes there are girls as young as 7 years old being abused but often they are 10 or 11 years.’
‘There have also been cases of child marriages where girls have been married as young as 15 years old. There have been numerous cases of girls dropping out of school and it is all linked to gender equality,’ she further explains. ‘You see it everywhere in their communities and it is underreported everywhere.’
Human trafficking is also serious problem for those fleeing war, with women and children often being the most vulnerable.
Peter Trotter, the Senior Field Coordinator at UNHCR in Mae Sot explained that trafficking is endemic in the region. ‘Thailand has just changed to Tier 2 but people don’t really want to talk about it. It’s not just refugees who are subject to trafficking, in fact refugees might be more protected. It’s everywhere,’ he said.
Burmese are often tricked by traffickers who tell them that they are taking them to Thailand to work and then instead sell the into forced labor or sex trafficking networks. Women and children are most often sold into sex trafficking and in some cases are taken to China to be sold into forced marriages to Chinese men.