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New approaches needed to help survivors of rape in Burma

As well as preventing sexual violence, assisting survivors of sexual violence in conflict has been a big theme at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, held in London this week. I was invited to take part in an expert panel on this subject at the summit, along with senior officials from the United Nations. Sadly though, I did not get the impression that there is a willingness to use the momentum from this summit to apply approaches to assist survivors of rape.

The situation in Burma is an example of how the current approach, largely based on the principle of co-operating with governments, can leave survivors of sexual violence without even the most basic humanitarian support, let alone the specialised support they need.

If the international community truly wants to assist survivors and end impunity, they have to address the problem of governments like Burma that do not cooperate. How do you provide assistance when the government of the country won’t agree to you doing so? What action should be taken to ensure compliance with international law, justice and accountability, when the government of the country is committing the crimes and refuses to stop?

This is what is happening in Burma today. The Burmese government has now signed the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence In Conflict. This centres around three main goals: prevention, assistance and ending impunity. But the Burmese government has not said anything about how it plans to implement this declaration, and based on the government’s record of abiding by international treaties and agreements, full implementation of this declaration would be very surprising.

The simple truth is that today in Burma, the United Nations, governments, and many international humanitarian organisations have failed to take action to end impunity for sexual violence, and failed to provide assistance to survivors.


International groups on the ground need to re-think their current approach. Humanitarian organisations are lobbying for better access in ethnic conflict zones, which is a positive sign, but a slow process. We are very concerned that where limited access is finally given, international organisations often move into an area and create their own programmes, rather than supporting and strengthening existing community and civil society structures.

These local organisations need financing and support to expand. The arrival of international groups can actually weaken local civil society when competing services are set up, which in our situation is an enormous loss. We have built up local organisations in a very difficult operating environment. We are a vital building block for democracy and stability. Gender-based anti-violence services, education and prevention are matters the community must own and address, not simply allow them to drop on us from international organisations. Competing services also waste valuable resources and do not help us create a sustainable response.

In the case of gender-based violence in Burma, this approach effectively helps the government to suppress information about rapes and sexual violence committed by its army since no government-registered humanitarian international NGO will undertake documentation and advocacy. Only local community groups do this work. This adds to the sense of impunity the military already enjoys. Lack of documentation also undermines the hope that affected women will one day see justice for the crimes committed against them. Local organisations are the most effective way to build a system to win justice and support female victims. It is that simple, and the funding should be directly based on that.

Where access is denied, there is an unwillingness by most large donors to consider alternative mechanisms for ensuring humanitarian assistance. They won’t fund cross-border aid, perhaps for fear of upsetting the government. Britain’s DFID demonstrated that this fear is wrong. They began funding cross-border aid, and it had no impact on their other operations in Burma.

Support given to community-based organisations should include targeted assistance for women who have been subjected to rape and sexual violence. Members of the Women’s League of Burma come from their communities and work within their communities. We have been providing services to women who have been subject to violence for many years, yet when funding is provided by DFID on this issue, where did it go? It went to large International NGOs, not our local organisations, and not to the survivors of sexual violence which those local organisations seek to help.

The community must own and solve these problems and provide lasting support to women. We can only do that with funding from international organisations which strengthens our programmes, skills and abilities. Local organisations should be funded not just to assist victims, but to advocate for new laws, document crimes, and provide community education about violence against women. This issue needs a comprehensive solution, not simply counselling and safe houses.

Ending impunity is essential. And this process will only begin if the international community starts to act. A first step would be an independent international investigation by the United Nations. We support UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s call for Burma to “fully investigate and respond to current and historical human rights violations and abuses, including crimes of sexual violence”. This is long overdue and without holding the perpetrators accountable we have no hope of stopping future violence.

And finally, there must be recognition of the political root causes of this problem in Burma – a military which is not under civilian control, and a government which is not fully accountable to the people. We need constitutional change, and we can’t wait. We won’t be able to address the major problems our country faces, including sexual violence, until there is constitutional change, democracy, and laws that protect us.


Wahku Shee is Joint General Secretary 1 of the Women’s League of Burma

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect DVB editorial policy.


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