In Myanmar, women with disabilities who survive rape and sexual assault face more stigma than support.
By WIN ZAR NI AUNG and JARED DOWNING | FRONTIER
Seventeen-year-old Ma Moe Nge did not understand what was happening when she was raped, nor when she gave birth nine months later.
Moe Nge (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) has cerebral palsy. She is cognitively impaired and has trouble speaking and moving, which made it easy for the elderly man next door to slip into her bamboo hut whenever her grandmother was off working in the fields.
“At first she told us she would kill the baby with a brick, it gave her so much trouble,” her grandmother, Daw Thein Aye, says, as she watches her grandson play among the coconut palms in their yard.
“Now she won’t even let other people hold him if they ask … She loves him more than she can express.”
As Thein Aye speaks, Moe Nge tries to call the toddler inside, then laughs when he wrinkles his nose and scampers away. She does not think about the boy’s father, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence for raping her.
In recent years, at least two other women with disabilities have been raped in Moe Nge’s township of Kyaunggon, in Ayeyarwady Region. All three victims became pregnant, and two delivered their attackers’ babies. Kyaunggon is not an outlier: throughout Myanmar, women with disabilities are some of the most vulnerable to sexual predators. Poor and marginalised in their communities, they lack support for themselves and their children.
“Their future is hopeless. These survivors’ stories are heartbreaking because they are abandoned by society,” said U Soe Than, a community organiser in Kyaunggon Township who is working to raise support for Moe Nge and the other survivors there.
Soe Than is trying to raise awareness about the sexual assault of women and girls with disabilities, particularly in remote communities. He also wants more public protections and resources for survivors.
“I want the government to draw up a plan for the future of raped women with disabilities,” he said.
Although the Department of Rehabilitation, which was created under the Social Welfare Ministry in January 2018, can offer these women some assistance, it is mired in red tape and is not yet fully operational. The 2015 Rights of Persons with Disabilities Law includes protections from violence for those with disabilities, but it does not address sexual violence explicitly.
The law established a National Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – currently headed by Vice President U Henry Van Thio – to raise and distribute funds to help people with disabilities, but there are no specific provisions for the unique needs presented in cases of rape. In the meantime, no regular payments have been made.
In the past couple years, some
people with disabilities have received payments of K30,000, but without a
complete, national registry, it has been largely inconsistent. Part of a
COVID-19 relief plan would give them another K30,000, but without the registry
completed, it’s hard to fathom how this will work.
Pilot projects to register people with disabilities are currently underway in Yangon Region’s Hlaing Tharyar Township, Kayin State’s Hpa-an Township, Bago Region’s Nyaunglebin Township and Kyainseikgyi Township, in Kayin State. If successful, they will be duplicated nationwide.
U Myat Thu Win, joint secretary of the NCRPWD and general secretary of the MFPD, said the committee has K3 million it plans to spend in the next fiscal year, some of it specifically on rape survivors in four ways: direct financial assistance, healthcare, legal aid and towards victims’ future development. “We can definitely help with the first three. For the fourth, we will work with the social welfare department,” he said.
Data provided by the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement shows that just five sexual assault survivors with disabilities had received direct payments under the new law by the end of 2019.
“I want to announce through media: victims can ask us for help. We will help as much as we can,” Myat Thu Win said.
Naw Zar Phyu Khant, a researcher for non-profit group ISchool-Myanmar, which helps people with disabilities access education, said non-government organisations can provide short-term help but are not equipped to pick up the slack in the absence of long-term government programmes.
These are sorely needed by those who have children conceived in rape and are unable to provide for them. MFPD executive committee member Nyunt Aung said that, beyond one-off cash donations, the federation does not have the resources to provide regular aid to sexual assault victims with disabilities.
For now, donations from well-wishers are the largest source of aid for this vulnerable group.
The dearth of support services is partly explained by a general lack of awareness, said Ms Eri Taniguchi, gender equality programme specialist for the United Nations Population Fund, which supports survivors of gender-based violence. Their lack of visibility means they are often prioritised lower, or overlooked entirely, by support programmes, she said.
“Since there is a social stigma, they may not come outside … So we don’t see them so much in the public space and we pay less attention to them,” Taniguchi said. “[We] need to consciously think, ‘Whatever we do, whatever policy we really make, make sure every community is benefiting from the policy and accessing the services provided on an equal basis’.”
Meanwhile, survivors continue to suffer in the shadows.
Daw Myint, a day labourer who also lives in Kyaunggon Township, never found out about her daughter’s rape until the pregnancy became too obvious to hide. Now she has no idea how she will provide for her one-year-old granddaughter, who was conceived when her adult daughter War War, who has cognitive and physical disabilities, was raped on an embankment while herding cows.
Daw Myint said she has not had time to worry about what will become of the baby. She is busy pursuing charges against War War’s attacker and dealing with threats from his family. “They say they will do something to us when he gets out of prison,” Daw Myint said. “I’m really scared because me and my daughter live alone in this house. If they kill us at night, no one will know it. So I ask my sister, who lives nearby, to stay with us at night. But I don’t know where to go. I will stay here.”
Zar Phyu Khant is aware of the challenges Daw Myint’s granddaughter faces, conceived against her mother’s will and born into poverty. These mothers often lack proper nutrition during pregnancy, she said, which can leave them unable to produce breast milk when the baby arrives.
Lacking access to support, “the families struggle”, she said. “Because of that, some send their babies to [adoption] centres, and some struggle by themselves because they don’t want to give [their babies] to others.”
The best hope for women like Moe Nge and War War is contained within the provisions of the disability law, said Zar Phyu Khant. The money is there, and survivors cannot afford to wait until the government finishes its registration process. They need food, healthcare and education, both for themselves and their children, and they need it now, she said.
Meanwhile, Moe Nge and War War have bonded with their children. Their grandmothers are planning to send the children to school when they are of age. But for now, they don’t know what the future holds.