Last year, a cleaner hired by Phu Pwint’s family raped the 11-year-old girl when she was alone in her home in Hlaing Tharyar Township in northern Yangon.*
The man was arrested for the crime and the victim’s parents received help from women’s rights activists and lawyers in Yangon to try to ensure that the perpetrator would receive the maximum legal punishment.
After months of slow-moving court proceedings, however, the family was dismayed when the judge sentenced the defendant to six years’ imprisonment, instead of the 10 years to life in prison set out in the Penal Code.
Win Win Khaing, an activist who supported the family throughout the case, said she and the lawyers believed the sentence was too light and indicative of the weak law enforcement and inefficient criminal proceedings when it comes to punishing rape in Myanmar.
“We need the highest degree of punishment for this kind of crime,” Win Win Khaing told Myanmar Now, adding that too little was being done to deter rape and protect women and girls in the country.
CULTURE OF SILENCE
About 700 rape cases are reported annually in Myanmar, according to national police records, which are likely to underrepresent the scale of the problem.
Activists say many more cases go unreported due to a culture of silence and victim blaming. In Myanmar’s deeply conservative and patriarchal culture, families see going to court to seek justice for rape cases as “turning one shame into two.”
Most of the women rape victims Myanmar Now approached refused to speak, even after being offered anonymity, as they were worried about humiliating their families.
“Some abused women are hesitant to file a complaints about rape at the court or police station - this has created challenges for us,” said Hla Hla Yee, director of Legal Clinic Myanmar. The NGO provides free legal aid and counsel to vulnerable persons, especially women and children, who have fallen to victim to crimes such as abuse.
She said that in Myanmar’s long-isolated society there is little public education on the legal rights of women and children abused in a domestic setting, while organisations like hers have only recently been created.
“Domestic abuse is a chronic problem. But it was not seen like that by the public, or there were no advocacy or legal aid groups for that issue in the past,” Hla Hla Yee said.
Legal Clinic Myanmar, which has offices in Yangon and five towns in central Myanmar and in ethnic states, supported victims in 60 court cases last year, including 16 rape cases, said Hla Hla Yee, who added that most of the latter had been child rape cases. “We found a shocking number of child rape cases… last year,” she said.
The police - usually the first port of call for rape victims wanting to make a report - can also be insensitive, poorly trained, and sometimes corrupt, according to activists, adding yet another layer to the challenges faced by women who have been sexually assaulted.
Police chief Khin Maung Latt of Yangon’s Pazundaung Township said his station tried to handle rape cases in a sensitive manner, though there were no official procedures other than asking one of the few female officers to record complaints by victims.
“We try and get the female sub-inspectors to do the interview. If they are not around when the plaintiff arrives, we have to ask the wife of the police station officer. Only then will the plaintiff be able to speak freely,” he said. “According to Myanmar customs, women dare not speak of such stuff to men.”
Myanmar’s laws, activists and lawyers said, do provide adequate punishment for rape and sexual abuse, but drawn out court cases and corruption in the judiciary are undermining the enforcement of laws and discouraging victims from seeking punishment of perpetrators.
“Since the victims are aware of the prolonged proceedings, they often don’t want to report to the police,” said Hla Hla Yee.
According to Article 376 of the Penal Code, punishment for rape ranges from 10 years’ imprisonment to a life sentence, plus a monetary fine. According to lawyers and activists assisting rape victims, sentences are almost always shorter than 10 years.
Hla Hla Yee said that in her eight years as a lawyer she has never seen a perpetrator get sentenced to life imprisonment. “A court once sentenced a father to 10 years for raping his daughter, but some offenders in other rape cases were sentenced to between 6 to 8 years in prison,” she added.
Win Win Khaing, the activist, said, “What we need is for the judges is to hand down effective sentences. We don’t see anything wrong with the laws.”
In 2013, Yangon’s Kamaryut Township Court sentenced a 70-year-old man to four years in prison for raping a 7-year-old girl. Her mother told Myanmar Now she appealed at the district court and the sentence was finally increased to six years.
”I went to court numerous times for this case, spending whatever money I have,” said the woman, who requested her name be withheld. “I don't think it's just that the person who violated my daughter only got six years. But I'm not going to go after him again anymore. I’m just going to concentrate on healing my daughter's mental trauma.”
“Since this happened, my daughter doesn't speak to her male friends or mingle with them anymore. She only hangs out with girls now,” she said. “I feel so awful for my little daughter and I just want to move away from this neighbourhood. But we can't afford to move so we are stuck here.”
A parliamentary report released late last year reviewed the issues that plagued Myanmar's legal system during the past five years of the Thein Sein government. It said corruption remains a common feature of court cases and little reform progress has been made.
During decades of junta rule, the judiciary lost much of its independence and fell under influence of the corrupted army-linked elite.
Some lawyers, such as High Court advocate Maung Maung Soe, believe this widespread graft is fostering a climate of impunity in Myanmar in which crimes such as rape tend to go unpunished.
One victim, an 18-year-old girl who filed a rape complaint with Yangon’s North Okkalapa Township Court, said she feared the defendant - a 32-year-old former boyfriend who kidnapped and repeatedly raped her - might get away with a light sentence.
“I don't have full confidence that the sentence would be just. If the other party offers money, the case could change,” she told Myanmar Now.
Victims of rape and sexual abuse by government forces in conflict areas in Myanmar’s ethnic minority regions have even less hope for a fair court case. The army has long been accused of protecting its soldiers from legal prosecution for such crimes.
Last year, two Kachin Baptist Convention volunteer teachers in their early 20s were raped and killed at a village school in Muse Township, northern Shan State.
Kachin rights organisations and local villagers are convinced that members of an army battalion were responsible for the gruesome crime. An investigation by local police has made little progress.
Yan Lu Ra, the elder sister of one of the victims, said, “We pray for the truth to come out.”
CHANGING ATTITUDES TOWARDS WOMEN
In Yangon, most recorded rape cases occur in the city’s outlying townships such as Dala, Hlaing Tharyar and Shwepyithar, according to the police, these slum areas suffer from poverty, harsh living conditions and lawlessness.
Members of local communities in some of these areas have worked with activists to organise educational talks and campaigns against rape in the hope of reducing such cases.
Htar Htar, director of Akhaya, said rape should be prevented not only by improving laws and court proceedings, but also by increasing respect for women and girls in Myanmar society.
“Parents need to teach their sons from a young age not to become bullies to girls, so that they don't grow up to inflict violence on women,” said Htar Htar, whose NGO works on women’s empowerment and campaigns against women and child abuse.
“The way women and girls are looked at in Myanmar needs to change… they are objects, whether they are young, old, beautiful or not,” she said, adding, “Parents… should also teach their daughters not to accept unjust actions.”
NGOs have been working for two years with the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement on a draft of the first National Prevention of Violence against Women bill, but it made little progress in the previous parliament.
Last year, parliament nonetheless approved the four controversial race and religion laws promoted by nationalist Ma Ba Tha monks, who claimed that some of the laws - widely seen as discriminating against Muslims - would protect Buddhist women.
Myanmar currently has no laws to effectively prevent violence against women at home or sexual harassment in the workplace, or to allow women to seek restraining orders on violent men. It remains unclear whether the draft law will address contentious issues such as marital rape.
May Sabe Phyu, a women rights activist of the Gender Equality Network who has been involved in the drafting process, said details of the bill could only be released by the ministry.
Htar Htar, of Akhaya, said, “When it comes to the new law, there should be a clearer definition of rape. It's not only rape if men use their sexual organs (but also other forms of abuse). You then need to make sure the public, the legal profession and the police know these laws and how to use them.”
Myanmar acceded to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in 1997, which would oblige it to conform its laws to international human rights standards for protecting women.
May Sabe Phyu said she hoped the new National League for Democracy parliament would soon review and adopt the bill. “As long as no effective actions are taken against the offenders whoever they may be, women and girls will remain unsafe,” she said.
(*Some names in this story were changed to protect the identity of rape victims.)