In Myanmar, violence against women and girls is a silent emergency. It takes many forms: domestic and intimate partner violence perpetrated within families; unwanted touching and sexual harassment on public transport; and violence occurring in conflict zones where women are particularly vulnerable. In a national survey carried out in 2015 and 2016, one in seven women in Myanmar reported that they had experienced violence since the age of 15. The real number is likely to be many more.
Cultural norms mean that domestic violence and intimate partner violence are rarely reported to the authorities. The same survey revealed that “about half of women and men agree that a husband is justified in beating his wife for at least one of the following reasons: if she burns the food; argues with him; goes out without telling him; neglects the children; or refuses to have sex with him.” In addition, one in five women age 15-49 who had ever been married reported experiencing spousal violence (physical, sexual, or emotional). Of these women, 77% did not seek help when violence occurred.
Marital rape and domestic violence are still not illegal in Myanmar. While new legislation proposing to criminalize them was submitted to Parliament in late 2018, it has not yet been passed into law.
On November 25, 2019, Community Partners International (CPI) helped organize an event in Hpa-An, Kayin State, to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the start of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. The event, hosted by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), was attended by around 300 representatives from local communities, government departments, and non-governmental organizations. CPI participated as part of the organization’s work to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls in conflict-affected and hard-to-reach communities in Kayin State.
The event featured speeches, dancing and live music, and included a debate focused on the importance of engaging men in the effort to end violence against women and girls. There was also a message board where event participants could write messages expressing their hopes to end violence. Participating organizations including CPI set up information stands to disseminate key messages and present their work.
With support from the UNFPA’s Women and Girls First Program, CPI is helping to raise understanding and awareness of violence against women and girls in 123 villages in four townships in Kayin State. CPI is partnering with the Karen Department of Health and Welfare (KDHW) to train their staff in 13 clinics to provide facility-based and outreach services to these conflict-affected and hard-to-reach communities to prevent gender-based violence (GBV) and provide the first line of health care and support to survivors.
Attending the event, CPI’s GBV Project Officer based in Hpa-An, Naw Say Ka Paw Lay, underlined the challenges of changing perceptions among communities: “Before we started raising awareness, most community members thought intimate partner violence was normal and was not wrong.” She explained how CPI is working to address these challenges: “To prevent violence against women and girls, awareness is important but we also need to give people options when violence occurs. We are providing community members with information about support networks that they can access if they experience or witness violence. We are establishing referral pathways to help survivors access the services they need, including health care, protection, psychosocial support and legal support.”
She stressed the importance of engaging with men in efforts to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls: “Women and girls are facing frequent physical, sexual and emotional violence and the perpetrators are usually men. So, it is very important that we engage with men and change their hearts and minds. We work closely with groups of men to raise awareness of violence against women and girls. We train them so that they can return to their villages and spread the message to help prevent and respond to violence.”
Naw Say Ka Paw Lay also underlined how CPI is helping to strengthen the GBV response system at different levels: “We organize case management training with KDHW staff so that they can respond more effectively to incidents. We are also working with youth networks in government-controlled areas to strengthen their GBV prevention and response capacity. In some cases, we work together with the Department of Social Welfare, and community organizations also contact us for advice in how to manage GBV cases.”
Event participant Daw Nan San San Win, Chair of the Myanmar Women and Children Development Foundation that cooperates with CPI on GBV activities in Kayin State, explained why she attended the event: “I am here because I am proud of the valuable contribution made by women throughout history. I won’t accept violence. We have to change cultural and social norms and eliminate violence against women."