YANGON — Officially, rape hardly happens in Myanmar and domestic abuse is non-existent. The reality? Violence against women is so pervasive it is regarded as normal, and as a result woefully underreported, says lawyer and activist Daw Hla Hla Yee.
“Domestic abuse in Myanmar is regarded as a family matter and even if it is reported, the police fail to take action,” she explains, adding that many still view it as a normal part of marriage that women must endure.
The UN has warned violence against women and girls is a “silent emergency” in the country, with incidents spanning groping on public transport to trafficking, and has called for a zero-tolerance approach in communities, police, and the justice system.
Analysis by the Demographic and Health Survey suggested at least one-fifth of women were abused by a partner in 2016.
According to government statistics, there were 1,405 rape cases in 2017, up from 1,110 the year before, around two thirds committed against children.
But Hla Hla Yee says these figures are just the tip of the iceberg in the country of 54 million.
Victims, who are required to prove there was no consent, are routinely blamed and ostracised in the rare cases when the perpetrator is found guilty.
There is no specific law against domestic abuse and the penalty of marital rape is a maximum of two years in prison.
“Women’s rights are not prioritised and are not respected,” the 38-year-old explains.
While violence against women is a global problem, with the UN estimating that 1 in 3 will experience abuse in their lifetime, many in Myanmar feel there is no point speaking out due to police inaction, social stigma, and a male-dominated justice system.
‘Justice for all’
Married women are often stuck with no financial or social means to escape. When rape happens outside of marriage, experts say a settlement between the perpetrator and families is often agreed without consulting the victim.
Hla Hla Yee and her team hope to give these women a voice.
Outraged by how hard it is for marginalised groups to get justice, she and a group of lawyer friends used their own money to found and run the Legal Clinic Myanmar, which gives free consultations and legal aid to those least able to afford it.
“Justice for all is unanimously accepted by all lawyers working here,” she says.
In the nine years since the venture first opened, it has grown from less than a dozen staff to more than 70, with ten branches across Myanmar and operates mainly with women in leadership positions. It offers legal aid, training, and advice via a 24-hour hotline, and a mobile team which can reach people in need faster.
Breastfeeding her infant daughter as she answers calls or gives presentations, Hla Hla Yee embodies the juggle of modern motherhood.
But she is keenly aware that Myanmar, despite the rise to power of female civilian leader State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, is yet to catch up.
It still has few women in decision-making positions and laws are often made by men, for men.
“I was really worried about marriage because of the abuse cases reported to us. I even thought of not marrying as I know the law that does not protect women,” she reveals.
Rising reports of rape
An updated draft of the National Prevention and Protection of Violence Against Women law came out in January after seven years of wrangling.
Rights’ campaigners had hoped it would finally force change, but Hla Hla Yee says it falls woefully short.
“I expected it to be much better than this. Now I’m worried how it could protect my daughter and others,” she warns.
Currently, rape of a woman outside of marriage carries a maximum sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment while punishment for paedophilia, categorised as rape of a girl under the age of 12, is life in jail.
But few offenders serve full sentences, Hla Hla Yee says.
The number of incidents of sexual violence reported to authorities, particularly against children, has risen dramatically, she says.
It is unclear if the jump is due to increased awareness, or more cases happening, but she insists weak laws and ineffective policing mean there is little deterrent.
“The penal code is no longer in line with the modern age,” she says, adding her team will write to MPs to demand revisions are made to the bill.
Public anger has spiralled after police mishandling of the rape of a two-year-old, with calls for “Justice for Victoria” on social media, prompting President Win Myint to demand action against bungling officers.
‘Women’s rights are human rights’
The UN’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar reported how the military weaponised sexual violence, using it with impunity on civilians during operations in Rakhine, home to the Muslim Rohingya, as well as Kachin and Shan states.
The military and government deny the allegations, but rights’ groups say the evidence underlines the lack of accountability for violence against women in the nation’s seats of power.
“Whether they are Rakhine, Muslims, Bengalis or Rohingya…the government should protect them because it is a crucial part of law enforcement. Women and children are the ones who bore the brunt of the war, and they should not be neglected,” she says.
One of nine children, Hla Hla Yee was born in Rakhine State, where her parents were farmers.
Experience with injustice came early, she says, recalling how authorities appeared tried to intimidate her family into selling their rice paddies for a low price.
“Since I was young, there is a strong feeling in my heart to not stay behind when I see the unfairness. When I see bullying and discrimination I speak out,” she explains.
Unlike many rural households, her parents treated their sons and daughters equally and championed Hla Hla Yee’s legal ambitions.
She returned to the state after she qualified as a lawyer and helped poor farmers, sometimes accepting fruits in lieu of fees.
But she went to Yangon after realising she would be able to drive social change by working with a collective of lawyers there.
“I realised I cannot fight this alone, but with the group we could beat injustice,” she explains, adding: “The community should respect that women’s rights are human rights, instead of undermining it.”