Gender-based violence is a serious problem in Burma, where many women find themselves in vulnerable situations due to poverty or dislocation caused by conflict. To learn more about these issues, DVB sat down with two representatives of the the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) — National Humanitarian Response Coordinator Dr. Ye Myint Oo and Deputy Representative Kaori Ishikawa — to talk about some of the challenges facing efforts to tackle gender-based violence in Burma. (Please note: For the sake of clarity, this interview has been edited to combine the responses of both interviewees.)
Question: What are the needs of the women in the camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) that you visit?
Answer: We are an agency for reproductive health, family planning, HIV/AIDS prevention and also gender-based violence (GBV). In a camp setting, levels of gender-based violence are very high, so we have introduced women’s and girls’ centres. In these centres, we provide training, capacity-building sessions and awareness training for women. Women want to come and talk about GBV, as they often blame themselves for being a bad woman or being a bad wife, thinking it’s not their husband’s fault. So we want to give a space that is comfortable for them.
We have eight centres in Kachin State — five in non-government areas and three in government-controlled areas. We also record the data and actually, 70 percent of the cases of domestic violence are not by the armed groups but in the home, and the root cause is more gender inequality or a lack of empowerment.
The risk of violence also increases when you put so many people together in a tight space. So we now do “gender audits” to make sure the toilets are in a separate place or make sure there are lights to reduce the risk of GBV in all areas throughout the camps. We also speak to the community leaders and the men, as everyone needs to be involved.
Q: The government is in the process drafting of a new law against domestic violence.Can you tell me about your role in this process?
A: We are addressing the legal issues by helping the government prepare and review reports. There are also many contested articles [in the draft law], so we are providing technical support for the drafting committee. It is back and forth, still to this day. The law will go to parliament, but they don’t get all the information or sometimes you don’t know, maybe there is an agreement, but you don’t know what is going to happen when it goes to parliament. So sometimes it is one step forward and one step backwards. Sometimes people in government do not know the [international] standards, so it is really hard to change people’s mindsets. We have to tell them this against international agreements that they have signed on to.
Q: What are some of the mindsets towards domestic violence that you encounter?
A: Part of the culture is to have a harmonious family and mediation within the family. Sometimes you don’t know if a woman has already tried [to get help], but they don’t want more mediation, they want counselling. Or they need to have internal assistance.
Q: How do the women’s and girls’ centres work?
A: In the beginning, women didn’t know what the purpose of a women’s and girls’ centre was, but gradually more and more women came to the centres. They receive lifestyle training, counselling or they can do sewing — which is very therapeutic for them, using their hands. And it is also just a safe space where women can come and talk and discuss. There are seven centres in Arakan and eight in Kachin State. In Arakan, we cover both sides — the Muslim camps as well as the Buddhist.
I think, again, in Burma’s culture there is not much privacy, or much private space where they can come and talk freely about their issues to a counsellor in a private room. We introduced a model to other NGOs and the government so they can duplicate [the centres] if they want to. But it has to be adapted to different contexts. For instance, in Arakan, women and girls cannot go outside the camps, so the centres are inside.
Q: What are kind of conversations do you have with men to educate them about gender-based violence?
A: A lot of the time, they don’t know it’s not OK to beat a woman. In Burma’s culture, there is this proverb, “If you love your wife, you have to beat her.” So we also use this as an example in the police training. As it is accepted culturally, we have to challenge that norm and show it is the government’s responsibility to intervene. But it is very hard to do this, as it is something [accepted] at home and the state believes it is not their business. So we need to change that mindset and explain to them that there is a penal code and that it is not allowed, and that they [the perpetrators] should be punished.
Q: What education do security forces receive about gender-based violence?
A: There are still not many cases [that have been] criminalised, so we are doing sensitisation with the police officers close to Mandalay, and we have given training to newly recruited police officers. We are also doing this in Kachin State. The problem is we do the training with new officers, but there are already old ones deployed. We are starting from zero, so we may not be able to change overnight. But when we went to see the new officers, they were so open. I think they want to do something — they just need to know how.
We have a new programme this year, called Women and Girls First, and we want to introduce this into the police academy so it is regular, not ad hoc. We have to do it regularly, as every few years officers move to new stations.
At UNFPA, we do [not only] family planning training but also [training on] HIV issues. For example, police used to catch sex workers because of the condoms. They use the condom as evidence of sex work, as sex work is illegal in Burma. But the contradiction is everyone here has the right to access to family planning, including condoms. That is another aspect of the police training. They should be helping, not arresting.
Q: What is happening at the government level?
A: We are trying to bring partners together so there is a strong referral pathway between the Social Welfare Department and the Ministry of Health, which is responsible for gender-based violence. At the moment, this is only happening on the humanitarian aid level, but we need to do it throughout the country. We have also conducted surveys in Kayah [Karenni] and Mon states, [where] GBV is so high.