Last month, Phyu Phyu made a life-changing decision that few women in Burma dare to take in her situation: the 38-year-old mother of two left the family home in Rangoon’s Thingangyun Township to escape her abusive husband.
“I was hit with a broken glass, and got bruises and cuts on my head. Once I was hit with a steel pipe and broke my arm, and one of my eyes was black after he punched me,” Phyu Phyu* said of the horrors in her 10-year-long marriage. “But now I am free from domestic violence.”
Phyu Phyu, who is employed as an accountant at a local NGO, said she began to suffer verbal and physical abuse after her husband and parents-in-law demanded that she quit her job to focus only on housekeeping and raising the children.
“I could no longer bear the daily scolding by my husband and parents-in-law,” she said. “But I was worried that my daughters would be labeled ‘fatherless’ and I, a divorcee.”
Wives like Phyu Phyu who try to end domestic violence and break free of an abusive marriage face many cultural and legal barriers in Burma, according to women’s rights activists, who said more should be done to help them.
In Burma’s conservative and patriarchal society, divorced women are stigmatised, as their role is mostly seen as homemakers subservient to the husband — often the family’s sole breadwinner.
Rape and violence against women and girls is often surrounded by a culture of silence and rarely lead to police complaints, activists say. If such abuses happen within the household, complaints are even less likely as it is seen as a family matter, even by the police.
Thida Myint, deputy director at Irrawaddy Women’s Network, an NGO which raises public awareness about domestic violence in Irrawaddy Division, said her staff struggle to explain to women that they should not accept abuse just because their husband provides the family income, and that they can seek legal protection.
“We have to explain to the locals that we are just sharing knowledge, not interfering in family affairs,” she said. “Most women hardly ever disclose abuse by their husbands and see it as a common issue.”
Police send victims back to community
The Irrawaddy Women’s Network works in 30 villages, and it runs a helpline for women who want to talk about abuse, seek help with a divorce or make a police complaint. Since the programme began in 2014, it has helped 10 victims of domestic abuse file a criminal complaint or initiate a divorce.
Wives who decide to file for a divorce are likely to face resistance from husbands and family members, Thida Myint said, while local officials will ask women to prove her grievances before they consider formalising a separation.
“It is very difficult to divorce from the husbands. They may abuse their wives and treat them like farm animals, but they rarely let them leave,” she said.
Filing a criminal complaint of physical abuse in marriage is even harder, activists said, as police usually prefer community intervention and will tell victims to first ask ward or village officials to solve problems with their husbands. If ward officials agree, a woman can go to police, who will then ask for eyewitnesses and bruises and scars as evidence.
“That’s why most women prefer to go directly to the court instead of making a complaint at the police station,” Thida Myint said.
Officer Zaw Win Naing, from Kyauktada Township Police Station in Rangoon, confirmed with Myanmar Now that police’s first reaction to allegations of domestic violence or marital rape is to invite close relatives, local elders or ward administrators to mediate between the couple.
A 2014 survey in Burma by international NGO Action Aid said such an approach of favouring community-level intervention in cases of violence against women “often perpetuates a culture of impunity, by awarding survivors of violence with monetary compensation, and merely reprimanding perpetrators for ‘bad behaviour.’”
Change in attitudes
May Sabe Phyu, director of the Gender Equality Network, said public attitudes and police procedures that view domestic abuse as a family matter should be changed.
“The first step is that all men and women need to recognise this as a crime. And there should be appropriate legal actions against this, instead of categorising this problem as an internal problem between husband and wife,” she said.
May Sabe Phyu added that men’s traditional attitudes of being “the owner of his wife’s sexuality” should also be challenged through public education programmes.
Win Win Khaing, an activist with women’s rights group Akhaya, said men’s dominant attitudes towards women are the root cause of abuse.
“Domestic violence will not stop as long as husbands keep up an authoritarian role in the family,” she said, adding that men and boys should be taught from an early age to better respect women and girls.
‘Very few’ domestic abuse convictions
Burma’s laws provide strong punishment for rape and sexual abuse, but drawn-out court cases and corruption in the judiciary often undermine law enforcement and discourage victims from filing police complaints.
There are currently no laws to effectively prevent violence against women at home or sexual harassment in the workplace, or to allow women to seek restraining orders on violent men.
Burma’s Penal Code does not refer to marital rape though it defines that a man is said to commit rape if it is against a woman’s will.
Lack of legal protection combined with conservative attitudes mean convictions for domestic violence “are very few,” said Min Thet Zin, a lawyer in Rangoon who has helped victims of such abuse.
Since 2014, NGOs have worked with the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement on a draft of the first National Prevention of Violence against Women bill.
Few details of the bill have been released and it is unclear whether it will address contentious issues such as marital rape. It is now up to the new National League for Democracy government to finalise the draft.
Women’s activists who worked on the bill told Myanmar Now they could not reveal its content while it was still being drafted.
Thet Thet Aung, deputy director at the Workers’ Affairs Department of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society activist group, said the new law should enable police to issue a restraining order against men while they are being investigated for accusations of rape and violence against women.
“In serious cases, the husband should be detained. If not, he will endanger his wife and others,” she said.
Than Than Win, 35, is one woman who said she wants to escape her abusive husband at their home in Rangoon’s Kyauktada Township, but dares not file for divorce or a make a criminal complaint out of fear that violence could affect her family.
“He beats me any time is he is angry at me. He also threatened to torture our children if I complain about his abuse to the police,” said the mother of three, sobbing.
Thet Thet Aung, the 88 Generation activist, said a recent case highlighted that such fears are not unfounded.
Earlier this year, Aye Thandar, 42, filed a complaint of domestic violence with Dala Township Police Station in Rangoon against her husband Tin Maung Win, 46.
On 5 July, as she left the Dala Township Court after the initial proceedings, her husband came up to her and stabbed her in the neck, causing a fatal injury, according to Dala police, who arrested the man on the spot.
“This incident has scared many women in Rangoon who want to lodge a complaint against their husbands over domestic violence,” said Thet Thet Aung.
*Some names in this story were changed to protect the identity of abuse victims.
This article was originally published by Myanmar Now on 5 August 2016.