Campaigner lifts veil on Myanmar’s hidden problem of domestic abuse

Campaigner lifts veil on Myanmar’s hidden problem of domestic abuse
Legal Clinic Myanmar's Hla Hla Yee. Photo: Myanmar Now

Legal Clinic Myanmar provides free legal aid to vulnerable persons, in particular women and children, to ensure the protection of their legal rights in a court of law. 
Since its foundation in Yangon in 2011, the organisation has opened offices across Myanmar to help those in need of legal aid in remote and ethnic minority areas. It also organises grassroots legal training to inform communities of their rights, especially women.
The organisation’s director Hla Hla Yee spoke to reporter Ei Cherry Aung about the Legal Clinic’s work, Myanmar’s legal protection of women and children, and the need to help victims of abuse.
Question: Can you explain how Legal Clinic Myanmar was established and what it does?
Answer: This legal organisation was formed with young staff members when it was first established in 2011 to promote and protect basic rights in Myanmar. We are also working for fairness and justice for women and children.
We give free legal consultation by phone or in person. We handle five categories of issues affecting women and children. We also conduct training courses to disseminate knowledge about legal rights for the protection of women and children. We support abused women and children at the courts. We also provide legal advice to those who do not want to lodge complaints at the court, and we have a 24/7 hotline for legal consultation.
Q: Where are the Legal Clinic’s offices?
A: We had only one office in Yangon in 2011, but we set up more offices in five cities in state and regions in 2013. These are in Myitkyina in Kachin State, Sittwe in Rakhine State, Pyapon Township in Ayeyarwady Region, and in Mandalay and in Meikhtila city in Mandalay Region.
Most of our staff members are ethnic peoples of different faiths. We chose the target areas depending on funds allocated for the project, the possible coverage area of the offices, and the areas where our assistance will be needed. We had only 11 staff members in 2011, but now we have more than 30 staff members at all our offices, including 17 members in Yangon.
Q: Which organisations provide funding for your work?
A: We join up with local NGOs and some part of our revenues come from conducting legal training courses (for NGOs). Some funds also come from foreign donors.
Q: When did you start as a lawyer and why did you choose this work?
A: I became a lawyer in 2008. I am a Rakhine ethnic. I first wanted to become a judge, but I could not pass the exam for judge. Then, I decided to work as a lawyer not only to help women, but for all the people who are being abused and have no education and legal knowledge.
Q: What is the impact of your community legal training for women?
A: We started these legal courses in 2012. Myanmar culture and traditions do not give priority to the role of women. Women can fall victim to domestic abuse, but when we asked the training participants about their problems at home, they all replied they had no problems. They were seemingly reluctant to disclose their family affairs, and they do not regard their problems as domestic abuses.
After we provided legal knowledge to them they understood the definition of domestic abuse and how we discuss these issues with women in person or on the phone.
Soon after we started, in 2012, there were only a few cases we needed to provide legal aid for. We also had a limited coverage area. However, the number of cases we received has gradually increased in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Many abuses are found in human society; 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. However, now legal aid groups can disseminate knowledge about domestic abuse. 
Q: How many cases did you handle in 2015, and what sort of cases?
A: Out of more than 200 cases that came up to Legal Clinic Myanmar in Yangon in 2015, we brought over 60 cases to the courts. We could provide counsel in some other cases. Some 200 cases were also discussed in our regional offices.
Most of these cases concerned domestic violence in which husbands brutally beat their wives and caused mental trauma; some men were accused of committing adultery (and complaints were filed under the 2015 Monogamy Law). Other cases included child abuse cases.
Q: How many rape cases came to your office in 2015?
A: We provided legal support for 16 rape cases last year.
Q: How many of these were child abuse cases?
A: We found a shocking number of child rape cases, compared with the adult rape cases, last year. Almost all rape cases at our Yangon office were child rape cases. We also found that some offenders in rape cases were drug abusers and some others are addicted to porn videos.
Q: What sort of sentences did the court hand out in these cases?
A: A court sentenced a father to 10 years for raping his own daughter. But some offenders in other rape cases were sentenced to between 6 to 8 years in prison.
Q: Under the Penal Code, a convicted rapist can be sentenced to life in prison. Have you witnessed any such sentence?
A: No, I did not see any life imprisonment for a rape case during my eight year of working as a lawyer.
Q: Do you think the Penal Code’s articles on rape and its penalties should be amended?
A: The definition of rape was amended in January (this year) and the legal age of sexual consent was raised from 14 to 16 years of age, and Article 375 on the definition of rape was amended. However, it is questionable that these amendments would fully protect the girls and that the increasing punishment will truly prevent rape cases.
Rape victims would suffer consequences such as mental trauma and we need support, such as rehabilitation centres, for them. New laws should cover these matters.
Q: What challenges do you encounter when providing legal aid to women who suffered abuse?
A: Some abused women are hesitant to file a complaints about rape at the court or police station; this has created challenges for us. Or they do not want to answer questions of the defendant’s lawyer.
Q: What steps should the incoming NLD government take to reduce abuse of women and children?
A: I want the new government review the existing laws. Some are outdated and do not meet (international) human rights standards. Some of the existing laws cannot fully protect the interest of citizens...
The Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement is drafting a bill (with NGOs) to protect women from violence. It will be submitted to parliament during the term of the next government. We believe this parliament could finalise it. I request the parliamentarians to adopt a strong law to be able to better protect women.
Courtesy of Myanmar Now