The unspoken issue of violence against women

Gender-based violence is a huge, and often ignored, problem in Myanmar. In Kachin State, centres have been established to help women who have been abused in IDP camps.

By YENNY GAMMING | FRONTIER

GENDER-BASED violence is a silent emergency in Myanmar. Regular incidents include groping on buses, harassment, online bullying, rape, trafficking and domestic violence.

Marital rape is still not a crime in Myanmar, and this is testified by the high level of acceptance in the country of violence against women. The problem needs to be addressed on all fronts; not least in areas effected by armed conflict, where families struggle under the stress of having lost their homes and livelihoods.

In Kachin State, where an estimated 100,000 people have been displaced by armed conflict, UNFPA has established Women and Girls Centres. The centres, of which there are eight in total, offer help to women and girls who live in internally displaced persons camps and who have been impacted by gender-based violence.

Women and girls who have been abused receive help to get to hospitals for medical assistance. Emergency treatment is particularly important in rape cases, where treatment within 72-hours of the incident can prevent both pregnancy and infections, including HIV. The centres also offer counselling and psychosocial support to help deal with the trauma.

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In part due to a weak legal system and the stigma of community disapproval, few women choose to report assaults. But in the communities where the Women and Girls Centres operate, those who do so are given support, including if their case is brought to trial.

‘It’s important not to be divisive’

At the Women and Girls Centre in Waingmaw Township, Kachin State, officers and caseworkers collaborate with volunteers and managers of IDP camps.

Caseworker Daw Lu Bu lives in the state capital, Myitkyina, just a few miles from Waingmaw. She now has the skills to address gender-based violence in her own community.

“In my neighbourhood too there is domestic violence. I always try to help. Only last month, a woman approached me for help. Her husband was blaming her for giving birth only to daughters, and he was being very aggressive.”

Lu Bu said she sat down with the husband and wife and discussed different aspects of fertility, including that the baby’s gender is also determined by the sperm of the man.

“I managed to find a way to say this without blaming or further upsetting the man. In these situations it’s important not to be divisive, but to stress that men and women have a shared responsibility for their children. So far, the man is calmer. I hope it lasts,” she said.

The vicious circle of domestic violence

Many women who experience gender-based violence do so at home. Many are caught in a vicious circle of abuse because they do not have the financial means or social support structures required to leave their husbands. Even women who are abused on a regular basis often choose not to report the crime or take legal action, due to social stigma or the expectation that authorities will do nothing about it.

As a result, caseworkers at the Women and Girls Centres have to find alternative ways of helping the women.

“One woman came to me with several injuries and bruising on her face. Her husband had abused her. First we accompanied her to the hospital, where she received medical care. Then we provided counselling to help her deal with the trauma,” said Lu Bu.

The woman did not want to go to the police, so instead the volunteers at the centre contacted male GBV volunteers in her IDP camp.

“They spoke with the husband man-to-man to try to make him change his behaviour. After this intervention, both male and female GBV volunteers in the camp have monitored the family, and the situation is now better.”

‘I want to give them access to justice’

Women who have experienced gender-based violence are often referred to as “survivors” rather than “victims”. The purpose of this language is to focus on women’s empowerment rather than portraying them as passive victims. But the term “survivor” can be misleading since it implies that just because a woman seeks help, the abuse will stop.

Sadly, that is not the case. Research shows that the majority of domestic violence cases are repeat incidents. Most women who experience domestic violence will be subjected to more than one instance of abuse by the same partner. It is very common for a man with a history of abuse to be violent to his partner even after he has received counselling.

“The most difficult part of my job is the repeated cases, where the husband will not change his behaviour, where the wife is not able to leave, and where she is abused again and again.”

“I chose this work because I am a woman in Kachin State, and I see what is happening to women in Kachin State: they are trafficked to China, abused by their husbands, sexually assaulted by strangers. I want to give these women access to medical care and counselling. But not only that. I want to give them access to justice. This is the only way to prevent more and more violence.”

‘We have the right to live in peace’

The Women and Girls Centres respond to gender-based violence in a way that focuses on the needs of women.  But preventing violence is as important as responding to it. Daw Khaung Nan works as a prevention officer at the Waingmaw centre. She is confident that their message is slowly getting through.

“The word is spreading not only in the camps, but in the host communities too. We’re now invited to give GBV presentations in the villages, and when I arrive, I realise that most people already know that domestic violence is a crime. But this is just the start. First we focused our efforts on women and girls in the camps. Now we are expanding our work to the villages and to boys and men.”

“We should not have to live in fear of violence, just because we are women. We have the right to live in peace in our homes and in our country.”

(Editor’s note: This is the first story in a two-part collaboration with UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, aiming to highlight gender-based violence in Myanmar)

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