Project MonMa in Burma

Project Monma travelled to Burma to more about the situation of women’s rights in the country. We spoke with a number of men and women in Burma and also in Thailand who have received a high number of Burmese refugees.

Burma 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). While Burma is believed to be on a trajectory towards democracy, the country continues to face a number of challenges. One of these being the widespead 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. However, the reality on the ground paints a different picture.

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. 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.

‘If a woman or a girl has been raped, then others will look down on her. No one will want to marry her, it’s like this throughout Burma,’ one woman explains. ‘The problem is the culture. Most of the men in Burma only want to marry a virgin, so if she is raped, then she loses her value.’

A university student from Hpa An University agrees that women and girls are often discriminated against based on their sexual behavior.

Nandar Lin Htin explains, ‘if a woman is raped then she will feel a lot of shame, most of the time she won’t say anything. If a man rapes a woman then they’ll probably put him in prison but they wouldn’t shame him. They’ll blame the woman and say it was her clothes that made him do it.’

Win Thiri Shwe, another student from Hpa An university, agrees that a woman would stay quiet if she was raped, ‘the parents will say that honor is more important,’ she explains. ‘Its not fair,’ agreed all of the women.

Violence against women in Burma is worsened by a weak legal system that is rife with corruption and misogyny which makes it difficult for women to report violence because they believe that they won’t be supported. As a result the majority of cases of violence go unreported. 

Women’s rights advocate Hlaing explains that poverty also prevents women from accessing justice. ‘If she’s poor and has been raped by someone with more money than her, then she won’t be able to get justice,’ she explains. ‘Most women will just stay quiet.’

Burma is also one of a number of countries throughout the world where women may be forced to marry their rapist as a way of avoiding shame. Paniton Phumbanyang, a legal officer at the NGO Lighthouse in Mae Sot, Thailand reports that there have been many cases of women in the Burmese communities being forced to marry their rapists.

‘Often the rapist has power in the family and in the community so often they think that if they give money to the family and get the girl to live with the rapist, then it will be good for her,’ he adds.

‘Forcing a woman to marry her rapist is about culture,’ said Soontree Panyasawang, also a legal officer at Lighthouse. ‘The idea is that if a woman gets raped she won’t be able to find a husband, so she has to marry her rapist as a way of restoring her honor. It’s about showing extreme power over women,’ she explained.

The Information Reporting Director from the Free Burma Rangers, an NGO based in Chiang Mai, Thailand which conducts humanitarian missions into conflict stricken areas in Burma, reports that sexual violence is also a serious problem in conflict areas in Burma.

‘The Burmese army have always used rape as a weapon of war. It happens today, even with children,’ he said.

In their war crimes report ‘Giving birth on the run: Kachin flee as Burma Army attacks,’ they have documented numerous cases of rape at the hands of the Burmese Army including the gang rape of a 40-year-old woman and two girls, aged 12 and 14, who were raped when going back to a school.

For many women and girls who arrive in refugee camps it 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.’ 

For a young woman who grew up in Mae La camp along the Thai Burma border, who asked not to be named, she recalled how there were many cases of sexual harassment and rape in the refugee camp when she was growing up. ‘I remember when women wanted to leave the camps to go and find something to eat, they would have to go past the Thai police. Sometimes the police would force them to have sex. It happened to my friends, they were only 15 or 16 years old. They had to accept it so that they could go out and find food,’ she said.

‘If you were a refugee in a camp then you couldn’t do anything, you couldn’t get any justice,’ she said. 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. They are then instead sold into forced labor or sex trafficking networks. Women and children are mostly sold into sex trafficking and in some cases are taken to China to be sold into forced marriages to Chinese men.

Aung So, the director of the Committee for the Promotion and Protection of Child Rights in Mae Sot, said that there are also many cases where family members sell their children into trafficking networks.

‘There are cases where parents go to Bangkok to work and leave their children with the grandmother. If she can’t afford to feed them then she’ll sell them, mostly for labor exploitation,’ he said. ‘The child could be as young as 10 years old.’

Whilst such cultural values that promote violence and discrimination against women and girls are widespread throughout Burma, not all women agree that they are acceptable. For Shoon, Htin and Shwe, the young university students in Hpa An, they all said that they wanted to see changes in their culture. They all agreed that there should be more freedom for women and discriminatory cultural practices, such as forcing women to marry their rapists, should not be allowed.

‘We need more education on human rights,’ says Win Thiri Shwe.

Hlaing also agreed that she wants to see change in the cultural attitudes that perpetuate violence and discrimination against women and girls in Burma. Along with the Women’s Initiate Group they are actively trying to do this.

‘We are trying to educate women because educated women can earn their own money and not be abused by men because she can stand up by herself. We are also trying to empower women in Parliament and to improve women’s rights,’ she said. ‘Now women have a chance to be leaders. We need to empower the women of Burma.’

Project MonMa in Burma

 

Project Monma travelled to Burma to more about the situation of women’s rights in the country. We spoke with a number of men and women in Burma and also in Thailand who have received a high number of Burmese refugees.

Burma 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). While Burma is believed to be on a trajectory towards democracy, the country continues to face a number of challenges. One of these being the widespead 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. However, the reality on the ground paints a different picture.

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. 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.

‘If a woman or a girl has been raped, then others will look down on her. No one will want to marry her, it’s like this throughout Burma,’ one woman explains. ‘The problem is the culture. Most of the men in Burma only want to marry a virgin, so if she is raped, then she looses her value.’

A university student from Hpa An University agrees that women and girls are often discriminated against based on their sexual behavior.

Nandar Lin Htin explains, ‘if a woman is raped then she will feel a lot of shame, most of the time she won’t say anything. If a man rapes a woman then they’ll probably put him in prison but they wouldn’t shame him. They’ll blame the woman and say it was her clothes that made him do it.’

Win Thiri Shwe, another student from Hpa An university, agrees that a woman would stay quiet if she was raped, ‘the parents will say that honor is more important,’ she explains.

‘Its not fair,’ agreed all of the women.

Violence against women in Burma is worsened by a weak legal system that is rife with corruption and misogyny which makes it difficult for women to report violence because they believe that they won’t be supported. As a result the majority of cases of violence go unreported. 

Women’s rights advocate Hlaing explains that poverty also prevents women from accessing justice. ‘If she’s poor and has been raped by someone with more money than her, then she won’t be able to get justice,’ she explains. ‘Most women will just stay quiet.’

Burma is also one of a number of countries throughout the world where women may be forced to marry their rapist as a way of avoiding shame. Paniton Phumbanyang, a legal officer at the NGO Lighthouse in Mae Sot, Thailand reports that there have been many cases of women in the Burmese communities being forced to marry their rapists.

‘Often the rapist has power in the family and in the community so often they think that if they give money to the family and get the girl to live with the rapist, then it will be good for her,’ he adds.

‘Forcing a woman to marry her rapist is about culture,’ said Soontree Panyasawang, also a legal officer at Lighthouse. ‘The idea is that if a woman gets raped she won’t be able to find a husband, so she has to marry her rapist as a way of restoring her honor. It’s about showing extreme power over women,’ she explained.

The Information Reporting Director from the Free Burma Rangers, an NGO based in Chiang Mai, Thailand which conducts humanitarian missions into conflict stricken areas in Burma, reports that sexual violence is also a serious problem in conflict areas in Burma.

‘The Burmese army have always used rape as a weapon of war. It happens today, even with children,’ he said.

In their war crimes report ‘Giving birth on the run: Kachin flee as Burma Army attacks,’ they have documented numerous cases of rape at the hands of the Burmese Army including the gang rape of a 40-year-old woman and two girls, aged 12 and 14, who were raped when going back to a school.

For many women and girls who arrive in refugee camps it 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.’ 

For a young woman who grew up in Mae La camp along the Thai Burma border, who asked not to be named, she recalled how there were many cases of sexual harassment and rape in the refugee camp when she was growing up. ‘I remember when women wanted to leave the camps to go and find something to eat, they would have to go past the Thai police. Sometimes the police would force them to have sex. It happened to my friends, they were only 15 or 16 years old. They had to accept it so that they could go out and find food,’ she said.

‘If you were a refugee in a camp then you couldn’t do anything, you couldn’t get any justice,’ she said. 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. They are then instead sold into forced labor or sex trafficking networks. Women and children are mostly sold into sex trafficking and in some cases are taken to China to be sold into forced marriages to Chinese men.

Aung So, the director of the Committee for the Promotion and Protection of Child Rights in Mae Sot, said that there are also many cases where family members sell their children into trafficking networks.

‘There are cases where parents go to Bangkok to work and leave their children with the grandmother. If she can’t afford to feed them then she’ll sell them, mostly for labor exploitation,’ he said. ‘The child could be as young as 10 years old.’

Whilst such cultural values that promote violence and discrimination against women and girls are widespread throughout Burma, not all women agree that they are acceptable. For Shoon, Htin and Shwe, the young university students in Hpa An, they all said that they wanted to see changes in their culture. They all agreed that there should be more freedom for women and discriminatory cultural practices, such as forcing women to marry their rapists, should not be allowed.

‘We need more education on human rights,’ says Win Thiri Shwe.

Hlaing also agreed that she wants to see change in the cultural attitudes that perpetuate violence and discrimination against women and girls in Burma. Along with the Women’s Initiate Group they are actively trying to do this.

‘We are trying to educate women because educated women can earn their own money and not be abused by men because she can stand up by herself. We are also trying to empower women in Parliament and to improve women’s rights,’ she said. ‘Now women have a chance to be leaders. We need to empower the women of Burma.’

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