Eliminating violence against women from the grassroots to the parliament
Year after year, more people, institutions, organisations, companies and communities join the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25th. So how does this international movement actually impact lives in rural areas in the global South? In Myanmar, civil society organisations and local NGOs are acting more than ever to end discrimination, starting with the country’s legislation.
Ongoing internal conflicts, political instability, migration, and growing drug problems are worsening violence against women in Myanmar, while poverty and illiteracy continue to hamper their progress. Myanmar is one of the few countries in the region for which no official data is kept on gender-based violence, making the problem somewhat invisible. This also means no one, including authorities and nonprofits, can track cases or develop solutions based on proper assessment and monitoring.
Having recently emerged from decades of dictatorship and instability, Myanmar is behind in its ability to protect women of all ages from gender-based violence in its myriad of forms: sexual abuse, physical and mental abuse, workplace harassment, economic violence, and other sorts of discrimination in both urban and rural areas. The legal system is not set up to protect women from these acts, so civil society organisations (CSOs) are leading the needed transition to fairer and more inclusive law. On top of common community-based activities like trainings and workshops on gender equality and sessions for migrants and sex workers, activists and social workers are aiming to use their knowledge and experience to actually influence policy.
Supported by People in Need (PIN), CSOs are taking the motto of this year’s International Day - #HearMeToo- to the next level. Last June, the Myittarshin team was invited to present policy recommendations based on their research to the representatives of the Mon State Parliament. In their document, the organisation tried to push policy makers to enact a clearly written constitutional law that protects women from not only sexual and physical abuses, but also psychological abuse.
PIN encourages civil society participation in public affairs and political dialogue in the Mandalay region and in Kayin, Mon and Shan states through a project funded by the European Union and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic. Alongside its implementation partners (Loka Ahlinn and the European Partnership for Democracy), PIN has worked to improve relations between local CSOs and representatives of regional parliaments, local government bodies, and the media. PIN has been able to support activists by co-organising trainings on topics like advocacy techniques, project design, managerial skills and strategic alliances; providing grants; and campaigning together.
Many CSOs have been demanding lawmakers write and pass the bill as soon as possible. According to social workers, beside the lag time to pass the legislation, it is also challenging to keep it effective in an impartial justice system. This requires the combined effort and awareness of lawmakers, judiciary members, authorities, social workers and community members.
A change in traditional society
Through their day to day work in communities, CSOs aim to change patriarchal society and support survivors. “I believe that gender inequality is the main reason why these different forms of violence happen. As long as men see women as one of their possessions, we can’t stop the abuses,” says Nan San San Win of Free & Justice Women Network, a the local CSO that PIN supports.
In Myanmar, perceptions of gender roles mean many feel boys are supposed to become breadwinners while girls are meant to be caretakers and housewives. In some rural areas, families do not even let girls go to school, and so women are increasingly dependent on men. Following these discriminatory customs for centuries, gender inequality grows and enables injustices like domestic violence, child rape and trafficking. According to data from UN Women, 17% of Myanmar women are victims of physical and/or sexual violence from their intimate partners. Other fields related to sexual violence list simply, “Official Nationals Statistics Not Available.”
“In order to fight against abuse, women need to be economically independent. I have seen many women sticking to their abusive husbands only because they don’t have their own income,” explains Nan San San Win, from Free & Justice Women Network. The organisation is based inKayin State in Myanmar’s South-East where internal conflict, drugs and migration are the most widespread and complex issues. They support local women through providing aid to survivors of sexual abuse and organising dialogues on women’s rights.
Daw Aye Aye Lwin of the Myittarshin group agrees that Myanmar women need economic independence. This CSO has been raising awareness on sexual health, sharing knowledge about sexually transmitted infections, and providing medical services to sex workers in the area. When illiteracy and poverty become a major barrier for young women to secure a proper job, some are driven to prostitution.
“What other options do they have? They don’t have education, money or skills to get a proper job so there’s no escape for them,” says Daw Aye Aye Lwin, who believes education and vocational training can be that escape. She feels even more strongly about this after having attended an exchange visit to the border city of Mae Sot in Thailand. There, she and other active defenders of women supported by PIN learnt from other CSOs about political representation, migrant workers’ rights, education, health services and reproductive rights for women living in border areas.
Myittarshin regularly hosts debates and informative sessions among women involved in sex work through peer educators. It’s not so easy to gather the women for the sessions: they work until 3 or 4 in the morning and have to move carefully to avoid arrest as prostitution remains illegal in Myanmar.
Activists and social workers agree that women cannot create safer environments and end violence against them on their own. Information sessions and awareness campaigns won’t work if men do not get involved in the dialogue.
Myanmar society as a whole needs to be aware of and ready to tackle the different kinds of abuses on women. “Physical and sexual abuses cause visible harm but there’s no visible proof of mental abuse. I have seen many women who suffer from psychological abuse at home on a daily basis without being aware of it,” explains Daw Win, one activist from Mawlamyine, in Mon State.
Many survivors are compelled to stay silent about gender-based violence, but women’s rights defenders across the country are determined to raise their voices on their behalf. They keep pushing boundaries and speaking loudly enough for decision makers to hear.