Ignoring the real reasons for rape

Contrary to what the Myanmar Police Force claims, rape is about asserting power and control over women and is not caused by how they dress or what they do after dark.


ON FEBRUARY 15, the Ministry of Home Affairs published a report documenting 1,405 rape cases from 2016 to 2017. The report gave limited information about the victims’ characteristics, but said that more than 900 cases involved children under the age of 16. The number of reported cases had increased 28 percent on the previous year, it said.

But what drew widespread contempt was not so much the figures but the report’s attempt to put the blame on the victims, mostly women. Leaping from statistics to assumptions, the report gives several “reasons” as to why the victims were raped. Chief among these was the victims’ drunkenness. Drug abuse, physical weakness, cruelty and a “lack of knowledge” were also to blame. The report from the military-controlled ministry said that an important way to combat rape was for mothers, guardians and the media to encourage women and girls to dress modestly.

Even by the standards of Myanmar’s military and police, the report seems unusually tone deaf. Its release comes just four months after the global explosion of the #MeToo movement, in which dozens of Hollywood celebrities publicly accused powerful men of sexual violence. While the military and police have missed #MeToo, social media has been buzzing with Myanmar women sharing stories of sexual violence from their personal and professional lives. #MeToo has also highlighted key facts about sexual assault that are at odds with the misogynistic myths repeated throughout the Ministry of Home Affairs report.

Stranger rape is rare. Women are raped regardless of their dress or behaviour. Most rapes are pre-meditated. Rape is an act of violence and control – not sex.

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In its readiness to perpetuate rape myths, the report is largely blind to who rapes women and why they do it. This predilection for victim-blaming together with an unwillingness – either maliciously or ignorantly – to pick apart why men are attacking women is precisely what we at Free Expression Myanmar have been investigating over the past two years, as part of a broader project examining gender-based violence.

Our research has found – in contrast to the ministry’s assumptions – that sexual violence against women in Myanmar is about power. It is often a form of retaliation against women to punish them, or the gender that they represent, for stepping outside of certain boundaries of behaviour or values – behaviour that some men find unacceptable.

Women who expose some form of injustice, name-and-shame, or speak uncomfortable truths to power are particularly at risk of facing sexual violence. This threat applies just as much to women speaking out within their families or communities as it does to “professional” activists engaged in politics.

One woman told us that she was regularly threatened simply for demanding online that she wanted to be able to go outside of her house without having to fear being sexually assaulted. “You are a woman and we can easily destroy your life while you are travelling at night,” she was told. Another described how even the slightest challenge to men’s power would prompt retaliatory threats of sexual violence. “Even though I am talking about what is happening to women from our ethnic minority, the men in my community condemn me, asking, ‘Who ordered you to do such work for women?’”

While all women face the threat of sexual violence as punishment for what they say or the gender that they represent, the risk is significantly heightened when women confront gender-related taboos or patriarchal power. This can be anything from talking about contraception to supporting women for political leadership. When they do so, they set off society’s in-built censorship mechanism – such conversations are labelled as “too sensitive” in Myanmar culture and shut down quickly.

Some of the worst examples of sexual violence in Myanmar are faced by women and trans-women who either speak out about sexual orientation or dress in a manner that subverts gender norms. Across the country, such women recounted stories of being raped, sexually assaulted, stripped, paraded naked or forced to do shameful acts by police and other powerful people in their communities.

The question arises of whether sexual violence is more common in Myanmar than in other countries. While it is impossible to answer statistically due to the misogynistic nature of the authorities and their practices, Myanmar faces not only the religious conservatism and patriarchal power common in most countries, but also a relatively unusual level of militarisation. Military values and behaviours have been soaked into state, society and culture. Women need “protecting”, which is understood as controlling rather than supporting. Those who go against the grain are “traitors” and therefore a threat to “discipline” and “order”. Violence is the acceptable and often encouraged solution to any dispute.

The Myanmar state is also structurally misogynistic. In case after case, women who sought support from the authorities to punish perpetrators of sexual violence were rebuffed at all levels. Those who went to the police reported being laughed at, shamed, advised how to dress “properly”, and told that there was nothing that the authorities could do.

It is not only the police, however. Immediately labelling allegations levelled against security forces in northern Rakhine State as “fake rape” without conducting a police investigation – as the State Counsellor’s Office did in 2016 – not only undermines the rule of law but also encourages self-censorship and institutionalises a culture of victim-blaming from the top down.

Putting all of this together, it is clear that the 28 percent increase in reported cases is not due to how women dress, their travels after dark or their consumption of alcohol, but rather to the sad fact that in Myanmar sexual violence is a means for men to reassert their power and control over women with impunity.

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