Written by Jenny Hedström.

Reports continue to emerge from the crisis unfolding in Rakhine State. There, hundreds of thousands of women, children and men have been forced to leave their homes. Many have been killed. Most have lost their land and their belongings. Women have been shot at, beaten and hit, their bodies raped. Some several times.

In Myanmar, there are limited accountability mechanisms in place for addressing sexual and gender-based violations. There is legislative impunity for sexual assault and other violations perpetrated by the Tatmadaw: soldiers are protected under article 381 of the Constitution, which suspends rights to justice in times of emergency.

The UN calls this a textbook example of ethnic cleansing. A friend I speak to working in the midst of this tells me that the abuses are so horrific he cannot process it — words are not enough. They cannot contain or express the horrors of what is happening. It’s beyond imagination.

Or should be at least. But this is not the first time this has happened.

The use of sexual violence at such a mass level is disturbing and frightening. It is, however, not surprising.  Conflict-related sexual violence has been well documented in Myanmar and described as a weapon of war, as a strategy of warfare and as tool facilitating genocide and/or ethnic cleansing.

The crackdown by Myanmar State authorities on the Rohingya communities only last year resulted in mass violence perpetrated against women and children. The United Nations found that about half of the 200 women and girls they interviewed suffered sexual violence. Human Rights Watch documented 28 incidents of violence perpetrated against women and girls; Amnesty International noted ‘an alarming level of rape and other sexual violence against Rohingya women.’ This year reports show that once again women and girls are being systemically raped.

Disturbingly, sexual violence is used in all the conflicts currently being waged in Myanmar.

In March, I met with women from the Kachin minority group sheltering in a displaced person’s camp across the border from China.  ‘We can’t go home’, they tell me. ‘The Tatmadaw [Myanmar armed forces] have taken our land. They will rape us if they see us’. Their fears are not misplaced. Since the 2010 reforms, the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand, a regional women’s rights organisation, has recorded 179 cases of rape and other forms of sexual harm perpetrated against Kachin women and girls by members of the Tatmadaw. In October last year, women from the Ta’aang ethnic group shared with me information about at least seven cases of rape and sexual violence perpetrated by the Tatmadaw. This number, they say, only represents a fraction of actual incidents — I believe them. In May 2005, I facilitated a workshop on women’s human rights organised by the Women’s League of Burma. Women representing Lahu, Karen and Shan minority groups attended.  Suddenly, one woman, an older woman from Shan State, begins recounting her experiences of sexual violence. The chatter in the room stopped as we listened. One by one, the other women in the room spoke up, narrating experiences of sexual violence from individual experience or of women they know.

Sexual violence happens in all conflicts in Myanmar. But it doesn’t have to happen. Sexual violence is not unavoidable.

Why does it happen?

Before we go on, I should explain what I mean by ‘sexual violence’. Because there is a lack of comprehensive domestic legislation defining what this is in Myanmar, I use the international definition:  sexual and gender-based violence including rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilisation and other forms of sexual violence. This definition is also what has been used in international and community reporting on sexual violence in Myanmar.

Beyond sexual violence there’s also evidence of other forms of gender-based violence occurring within Myanmar. This includes domestic violence, sexual harassment, discrimination, and forced and early marriages.

It is important to not just focus on sexual violence – which most reporting has tended to do – because that would give us a skewed picture of what’s actually happening. Sexual violence is an outcome of a larger problem of gender inequality and the lack of rule of law.

A central claim of feminist research is that sexual violence in conflict is not unavoidable, but a cause of specific gendered context that results in increasing women’s exposure to experience violence. Therefore, in order to understand why it occurs we must first identify and understand this specific context. In other words, sexual violence must be understood in relation to the wider socio-economic and political restrictions imposed on minority women in Myanmar.

In Myanmar, women cannot exercise their reproductive rights, are not equally represented in national level-decision making or in the peace process. Women from some communities are prevented from inheriting or owning land and property. In general, women earn less than men and participate less in the formal work force.  A higher number of women than men are illiterate.

This is problematic. Because although these factors do not directly lead to violence, gender inequality in decision-making and material gender inequalities (poverty) are important to pay attention to because they enable the use of gender-based violence by creating a climate of impunity for perpetrators of violence. The dearth of women in power can be linked to the absence of a legislative framework identifying and addressing gender-based violations.

Lack of accountability

In Myanmar, there are limited accountability mechanisms in place for addressing sexual and gender-based violations. There is legislative impunity for sexual assault and other violations perpetrated by the Tatmadaw: soldiers are protected under article 381 of the Constitution, which suspends rights to justice in times of emergency. The Ministry of Defence is not subject to civilian control, meaning that the military operates with very little civilian oversight or accountability. The national ceasefire agreement does not include mechanisms to secure access to justice for survivors of sexual and gender based violence, and many of the non-state armed groups in Myanmar have unclear or insufficient implementation regarding gender-based violations within their own troops. This means that soldiers may be incentivised to engage in sexual violence by a climate of impunity and by widespread normalisation of women’s inequality and insecurity in Myanmar.

What can be done?

Interventions aimed at preventing sexual violence in Myanmar must then take into consideration the wider socio-economic and political context in which such violence takes place. In Myanmar, this means supporting initiatives aimed at increasing the number of women in politics and pushing for women’s substantial and meaningful participation in the peace processes. Legislation must change: women’s coalitions have long worked on and lobbied for the full and comprehensive implementation of the Protection and Prevention of Violence against Women bill. A definition of discrimination must be included in legislation so that women can identify and oppose the insecurity they face, whether is cultural, economic or political.  Critically, funding must be provided to the grassroots organisations working in Rakhine State and throughout the country providing necessary and potentially lifesaving work, ranging from educating communities about women’s rights, documenting human rights abuses to counselling survivors of gender based violence.

What is happening right now to Rohingya women and girls is horrific. The scale of the abuses is, for Myanmar, unprecedented. But they are not unavoidable.

Jenny Hedström (@hedstromjenny) Jenny Hedström is a third-year doctoral student in International Relations and Politics at the Monash Gender, Peace and Security Center, Monash University, Melbourne.  Jenny’s research interests concern feminist political economy, Myanmar/Burma studies, militarisation and conflict. Image credit: CC by DFID-UK Department for International Development/Flickr.


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