There is some debate as to the historical and contemporary status of women in Myanmar. One narrative, often promoted by elite women, argues that the status of Myanmar women has been historically high. Early scholars of gender in Myanmar describe the unique position of Myanmar women as enjoying greater legal rights compared to women in neighbouring China and India. A second narrative, taken up by contemporary women’s rights advocates, challenges this view and argues that the notion of equal status between Myanmarese women and men is problematic. They argue that, while some elite women may have access to certain rights and freedoms, this may not be the case for women from different walks of life. Women from diverse backgrounds suffer discriminatory social norms and practices, and experts suggest that high levels of violence against women signal their unequal status. I will argue that the high rates of violence experienced by women came as a blow to the narrative framing Myanmar as a “gender equal” country.
What do we know about violence against women in Myanmar?
The United Nations states that violence against women is a silent emergency in Myanmar. National prevalence estimates from the 2015-2016 Demographic and Health Survey found that 21 percent of women reported experiencing violence from an intimate partner (husband, partner or boyfriend) in the one-year period. Other studies have found similar patterns. A 2005 study on violence against women in Mandalay (Myanmar’s second city) found that 27 percent of women experienced physical assault and 69 percent of women experienced psychological aggression in the one-year period preceding the study. Experts suggest that the actual number of women who experience violence may be higher due to women underreporting violence.
In 2013, the Gender Equality Network, a diverse and inclusive network of more than 100 organizations in Myanmar, commissioned a study in seven cities to better understand the context of women’s experiences of violence. The study found that while emotional, physical, and sexual forms of violence against women were prevalent, women hesitated to report violence because abuse was often considered a normal facet of intimate partnerships. Many respondents believed that violence in the family was a private issue, to be resolved by the couple themselves. Women noted that they were often told not to disclose violence, and this silence made it difficult for outsiders to offer help.
Culturally, wife beating is still not widely believed to be a social problem in Myanmar. The Demographic and Health Survey data indicates that 51 percent of women and 49 percent of men held that a husband would be justified in beating his wife in certain circumstances. Social acceptance of abuse is reflected in the commonly expressed saying, “If you break her bones into pieces, you will be loved by her whole-heartedly.” To an extent, these cultural barriers underscore that the country still lacks comprehensive laws criminalizing violence against women.
What are Myanmar’s laws and policies targeting violence against women?
It is only in recent years that the Myanmarese government has recognized violence against women as a serious social and public health concern. In 2013, the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement Department launched their 10-year “National Strategic Action Plan for the Advancement of Women 2013- 2022”, in which violence against women was listed as one of twelve priority areas. Although long overdue, the Ministry of Health and Support recently launched its guideline on health care response for violence survivors. Despite this progress, the passage of legislation to criminalize violence against women lags behind.
There is growing concern among women’s rights activists and the general public about how perpetrators are held accountable and how to challenge the culture of impunity, particularly through legislation. The “Prevention and Protection of Violence Against Women Law” was first proposed in 2013, but it stalled at the draft legislation stage. Increasingly publicized cases of violence against women, combined with the delay in passing the law, has led to public criticism that current laws neither address women’s experiences of violence nor do they protect women’s rights. At the same time, four controversial laws collectively known as the “Laws for the Protection of Race and Religion” backed by Myanmarese nationalist groups (such as the Ma Ba Tha) were adopted in 2015 in the name of protection of Myanmarese women. The four laws cover topics such as interfaith marriage, religious conversion, population control and polygamy, and are perceived by women’s rights advocates as legalized constraints on women’s rights and freedoms. Coalitions of civil society groups describe the laws as discriminatory against Muslims who practice polygamy, as well as violations of women’s rights to marry based on their own choice and violations of the religious freedoms guaranteed by the constitution. The passage of these laws has been described as the most controversial political debate in Myanmarese democratic transition.
Sexual harassment and assault are other major forms of violence against women in Myanmar. Whether in urban centers such as Yangon, or other states and regions, sexual harassment against women is pervasive. Public forms of sexual harassment and assault range from public groping in crowded places, sexual touching on city buses and catcalling on the streets. Women also report sexual harassment and assault during major festivals and events. Unlike intimate partner violence, legislation exists to criminalize non-partner sexual violence and harassment. Penal code 509 states:
Whoever, intending to insult the modesty of any woman, utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard or that such gesture or object shall be seen, by such woman, or intrudes upon the privacy of such woman, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.
However, there remain challenges to implementation, and Penal Code 509 it is not widely known by the general public. Women’s rights activists argue that the lack of specificity and clarity of the definition of sexual harassment dilutes the utility of the law. Further, law enforcement is weak as perpetrators often end up paying only a small fine.
Although Myanmarese women were once portrayed as equal to men, with high status, women’s rights groups indicate that many challenges remain. Violence against women, and particularly domestic violence and sexual harassment, have been overlooked as a social problem that violates the rights of women as human beings. Although recent government policies aim to address the issue, there have been growing concerns that existing laws are insufficient to address the country’s violence against women. It is also interesting that the passage of the Prevention and Protection of Violence Against Women Law has been delayed, even though its initial drafting took place in 2013.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.