Last week photos emerged of two girls who were tortured in a tailor shop. One girl was burnt, stabbed and had her fingers broken. The girls were aged 11 and 12 when they were sent to work in the shop. Their working conditions deteriorated rapidly and they were held like slaves for five years.
It wasn’t until a local journalist who happened to work near the tailor shop decided to investigate that the girls’ suffering finally came to light. By reporting the case to the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC), Myanmar Now editor Swe Win exposed not only the abuses, but also the inadequacies of the country’s response to such crimes.
Part of the outrage stemmed from the sheer cruelty of the girls’ mistreatment at the hands of the proprietors of a well-known local business. Suddenly, the public came face to face with the ugly reality of severe human rights violations that were taking place right next door, and not in some remote conflict zone.
“This case is horrific, no question about it,” said Bertrand Bainvel, UNICEF’s country representative in Burma. “It is an example of the extreme vulnerabilities that children face in Myanmar which are actually happening behind closed doors.”
But much of the outcry was also directed at the MNHRC. After the case was reported to them, they mediated between the abusers and their victims to get the girls 5 million kyat (US$4,000) in compensation for their injuries — a response that most saw as completely inappropriate.
“Mediation is not a proper way of problem solving at all,” said May Sabe Phyu, Director of Gender Equality Myanmar (GEN), an umbrella organisation of more than 100 Burmese NGOs and civil society groups. “Human rights institutions and the authorities are not following proper procedures; they let the criminals escape by paying a small amount of money.”
She said that she and other activists have been calling for years for a law to protect women. But the question remains — how many more cases like this will it take to finally get a response from lawmakers.
“Of course we are very sad and angry and would like to help them [the two girls],” she said. “But this case is only one among many that have never drawn public attention before.”
The long law-drafting process
“The drafting process of the law for prevention of violence against women is taking longer than it should,” said Aung Myo Min, the executive director of Equality Myanmar, a nongovernmental organisation which facilitates a broad range of human rights education and advocacy programmes.
“As a result, there are so many cases of violence against women, but no clear legal processes and no good remedy for the victims.”
Aung Myo Min has been fighting for equal rights for all citizens of Burma since his days as a student leader during the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, when he was the first openly gay man in the movement. He says unless the government stops seeing women’s issues as “second rate issues” and there are clear punishments for offenders and legal protection for women, discrimination will continue.
Cultural influences and a long history of civil war and military rule in Burma have made it especially difficult for this country to address the issue of crimes that overwhelmingly affect women and girls, according to Aung Myo Min.
“There is a cultural impact and also hesitation to touch issues related to armed violence,” he said.
Burma’s laws and policies relating to the treatment of women came under scrutiny in Geneva last July during a review of its commitment to the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Two organisations — the Legal Clinic Myanmar and the Mon State Women and Children Upgrade Conduct Organisation — submitted a shadow report which documented more than 1,059 cases of violence against women reported annually.
Speaking to DVB at a conference in Rangoon on Saturday that focused on another abuse case, Hla Hla Yee, the director of the Legal Clinic Myanmar, said the problem is twofold: “There is no specific law against women’s violence, and secondly, the majority of women have a lack of legal awareness.”
Hla Hla Yee founded the Legal Clinic Myanmar in 2011. It is run by a team of 36 lawyers and provides free legal advice — particularly for vulnerable women who don’t know how to approach the police for help or how to deal with Burma’s court system. According to Hla Hla Yee, one of the most deep-rooted problems is a cultural bias that encourages women to choose mediation rather than litigation to settle disputes.
Aung Myo Min agrees that cultural practices need to be tackled, despite the reluctance of the authorities to challenge traditional values. If a crime is “culture related, they [the government] don’t want to touch it,” he said, advocating for gender training and for parliamentarians to repeal laws from a gender perspective.
A victim-blaming culture
One of the greatest cultural problems is the tendency to blame women when they become victims of abuse. According to Nan Htwe, the programme director for advocacy group Akhaya Women, this is something that needs to stop: “It’s downgrading the development of our country.”
This month a pilot hotline service providing free legal advice and counselling services for women was established by Blue Ocean Legal Service and Akhaya Women.
Nan Htwe said she hopes it will be a step towards encouraging more women to talk and seek help. So far, she said, they have received many requests for help to deal with cases of domestic violence and intimate rape. Again, she said, it all boils down to “the same issue of gender inequality.”
But teaching women to “no longer stay silent” and to report cases of violence to the authorities is just half the battle. If the legal system remains unresponsive to the needs and concerns of women, encouraging women to stand up for their rights will be useless, said Nan Htwe.
Nini Htwe, a retired lawyer from Mandalay, knows how frustrating it can be to deal with Burma’s courts. She said it was corruption in the court system that caused her to resign.
“When I was a lawyer, I faced a lot of difficulty because of the lack of rule of law in the courts. They take bribes and then release the perpetrators. I cried a lot at that time and eventually I gave up,” she said.
After she quit her job as a lawyer, she worked as a researcher on a study conducted by the Department of Social Welfare in 2012. That experience, she said, was almost as devastating to her faith in the justice system as her dealings with corrupt judges. “Seventy percent of the women we interviewed didn’t know what violence was, so they dared not rely on the police or judges.”
Considering how difficult it is for women to get the protection they need, it comes as no surprise that children are in many ways even more vulnerable.
To improve efforts to protect children, rights defenders are focusing less on laws, and more on law enforcement, reflecting the fact that police are very often the first responders in cases where children have suffered as victims.
To make them more effective in this role, advocates for children’s rights are providing training for police that aims to make them more aware of the unique circumstances of crimes involving children. UNICEF is currently supporting one programme, carried out in conjunction with the Ministry of Home Affairs, that teaches police how to deal sensitively with children as victims, witnesses or perpetrators.
Country director Bertrand Bainvel said the programme has already started, “but of course, changing a system and mentality within a system takes time.”
The social welfare sector is also still in its infancy in Burma. The Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement received just 0.08 percent of the national budget in 2015. Last year the department began to roll out services and currently there are 95 case managers in 37 townships.
Referring back to the abuse case at the tailor shop, Bainvel said it is indicative of the fact that “children protection systems have not been fully established” in Burma. To help address this problem, UNICEF is currently training case managers to detect and refer children who are found in abusive situations.
Meanwhile, the case has also forced parliament to take notice of some of the shortcomings in the existing system. On Monday, lawmakers passed a proposal calling for punitive action against the MNHRC for its failure to refer the case to the appropriate authorities.
Retired lawyer Nini Htwe said she was encouraged by the move, as it recognises that “a criminal is a criminal.” The role of the MNHRC is “not to reach a compromise between the perpetrator and victim. It is totally wrong,” she said.
May Sabe Phyu agreed: “Violence against women is a serious form of discrimination and a violation of women’s human rights. There should not be any excuse for the perpetrators not to be punished by criminal law.”