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Last week a video went viral on Facebook. It showed a man beating a woman in public as onlookers did nothing but watch. As disturbing as that was, however, what really bothered many viewers were the comments posted beneath the video.
“What’s really upsetting were the comments that said, ‘What did she do, though, that caused her husband to beat her,’” says Zar Chi Oo, a project manager of a new advocacy group, “Say no to sexual harassment: Towards a safe and peaceful society.”
Victim-blaming is an issue that is common in Burma when cases of sexual violence are called out.
Zar Chi Oo decided to start a Facebook group as a public space where men and women could share their experiences and speak out about sexual harassment. She then organised a group of 25 volunteers from various backgrounds — writers, housewives and medical professionals, among others — to workshop ideas about how to raise awareness and tackle the issue.
“We need better policing and laws that protect women,” says Zar Chi Oo.
The advocacy group is lobbying the government to pass strong laws that prevent violence and protect women. They plan to conduct 1,000 surveys, interviewing men and women about their experiences of sexual harassment, to present to the parliament. “We want to present this evidence from society so that the government has to act on it,” says Zar Chi Oo.
One of the most common places to be harassed is on public transport. “Buses in particular are too crowded and every day many cases of harassment happen,” says one of the volunteers conducting surveys, Dr Soe Kyaw Za.
He says it’s important that both men and women raise their voices and call for the total elimination of sexual harassment. Apart from stronger laws to protect women from violence, he adds, “We need to create safe places for all people on public transport; we need to have posters raising awareness in public places and cameras on the buses.”
Another volunteer distributing surveys in her township is housewife Myat Win Win Aung. She says one of the results they are finding is that there is a lack of education about what counts as sexual violence. “One lady I interviewed was 43 years old and said she was too shy to share her experience as she thought it was [a result of] her weakness.”
Volunteer Win Pa Pa San says sexual violence is still a grey area and women don’t know what you can report to police. “On public transport I have had someone touch me and say it was just an accident. I’ve also had friends who have had the same experience, but when they yell or raise their voices, people on the bus will be curious but they won’t help — they just ignore it.”
It’s also not just women who are harassed on public transport, says another volunteer, Robert Winn Htein. He recalls being harassed once on a bus, but being too ashamed to speak out. “I assumed that because this man was well dressed, he was a gentleman.” He says the bus drivers and assistants also need to be trained to report sexual harassment.
Abuse online is also a rising trend that needs awareness, according to Zar Chi Oo. “Police have limited capacity to tackle online harassment and don’t know how to handle complaints,” she says, adding that with SIM cards now as cheap as 1,500 kyat (US$1.23), tracing perpetrators of online abuse is difficult, despite new trends of phone companies registering the personal details of SIM-card buyers.
The advocacy group is also designing an app so that people can instantly document cases of abuse on public transport.
“We want to map the areas where people are experiencing sexual harassment to provide as visual evidence to the government so that concentrated areas of abuse can be better policed and more security provided,” says Zar Chi Oo.