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New research has found that in camps for the internally displaced in Kachin State, women’s needs struggle to be heard as the conflict in northern Burma enters its seventh year.
“Life on Hold,” a report documenting the everyday realities for women in these camps — widespread sexual violence, depression and a dearth of female representation in peace talks — was launched in Rangoon on Thursday by the humanitarian aid organisation Trocaire and Oxfam.
“Seventy percent of the population in internally displaced persons [IDP] camps are women, yet their voices and needs are barely heard,” said Trocaire report author Nora Pistor.
Based on interviews with 107 women in IDP camps in both government- and nongovernment-controlled areas, researchers found that most women had experienced sexual violence perpetrated by state or non-state armed forces, as well as the frequent occurrence of domestic violence.
During a panel discussion at Thursday’s launch, May Sabe Phyu of the Gender Equality Network (GEN) expressed her frustration at the lack of justice for IDP women who have been sexually abused, despite carefully documented reports: “Access to justice is still very, very difficult, so you can imagine what it’s like when most perpetrators are the uniformed people.” GEN has made repeated calls for stronger rule of law and has been working with the government for three years drafting a law that specifically criminalises violence against women.
Lack of justice for victims of sexual violence
Pistor of Trocaire said that in terms of women’s access to justice, there is no difference between government-controlled areas and territory not controlled by the government. “No access to justice means no access to justice,” Pistor stated bluntly. The report says that in most conflict scenarios involving gender-based violence, the perpetrators do not face any punishment for crimes against women, whether through civilian courts or military tribunals.
Speaking to DVB after the panel, Mary Tawm, director of the group Wunpawng Ninghtoi, which works with IDPs in Maijayang on the China-Kachin border, raised her concerns that a persisting culture of impunity among armed forces leads witnesses and victims to stay quiet. Referring to past high-profile cases that remain unsolved, such as the two Kachin teachers in northern Shan State who were raped and murdered in January 2015, she said, “We have sent these cases to the Myanmar Human Rights Commission and the Upper House, but still there is no response. There is not justice.”
The Trocaire-Oxfam report also asserted that the lack of transparent, independent investigations into alleged abuses warrants “bringing cases involving the military from courts-martials into the civilian court system.”
The graphic nature of some of the violence women have been subject to when fleeing was captured in one respondent’s account in the report, which states: “A woman who had just had a baby was raped and tortured [on 9 June 2011].”
A small piece of the peace talks pie
Another point raised by panelists was the lack of women’s representation in peace negotiations.
One of the recommendations in the report, which was gathered in consultation with women’s groups, was the temporary measure of appointing “gender, peace and security” advisers in the formal peace architecture and mandatory quotas of women to ensure a minimum level of female participation.
The women who were interviewed for the report also raised their strong desire to better understand, participate and influence the peace process, both locally and nationally.
Mary Tawm said for those inside the camps, there is an information void regarding what the peace process even looks likes, a problem that is particularly acute in camps near the China border. She is calling for the introduction of youth centres where young people can access information about the peace process and have a “safe space to raise their concerns.”
Conditions inside the IDP camps
Among all of those interviewed, “women also recounted they felt overwhelmed with their responsibilities to take care of family members, children, elderly, sick people in their households or in their communities.” Feeding into this anxiety was also the lack of access to water, basic living facilities, education, health services and income-generating opportunities.
In conjunction with the report’s release, a photo exhibition by IDP youth was also opened on Thursday at the Deitta art gallery in Rangoon, which hosted the launch. Twenty-six-year-old IDP photographer Ja Bran Lu hopes the report and exhibition will inform future livelihood projects inside the camps.
“Currently there are some short-term, two- or three-month programs like teaching women sewing or tailoring skills and giving them hope. But I hope they will extend these programs and donors give more,” he said.
Pointing toward a photograph at the Deitta exhibition of three elderly Lisu men inside an IDP camp, 23-year-old Awng Ja said it is the most important photo he has taken. The photograph “shows them waiting desperately for food rations at Laisin Mountain Camp, which is one of the lesser-known camps and receives few rations.” Awng Ja and his family fled fighting in 2011 to the IDP camp Woi Chyai, near the Chinese border, and has still not been able to return to his home village because of the ongoing conflict.
He hopes his photos and those of others will raise awareness about the poor conditions inside Kachin State’s IDP camps.
Food shortages combined with a lack of income while living in the camps was also recorded in the report as a key concern for women, with these cumulative hardships often contributing to feelings of depression. One respondent said her sense of helplessness, “Because of the war we had to flee, we have lost our home and all our property. We are lagging behind to develop our community. Also the children’s characters are different now.”
One positive finding in Trocaire’s interviews was that counselling services are being provided through Women and Girls Centres inside some of the camps in Kachin State. According to data from the United Nations Population Fund, the initiative’s funding source, in 2015 more than 4,500 women and girls accessed the centres. However, Trocaire’s report also revealed that only a few cases of gender-based violence were referred to receive legal support.
As one respondent told Trocaire, “women need to participate in the peace process because women only know all the details of what women’s needs are.”