Aye Thada Hla is a communications coordinator of the Gender Equality Network comprising more than 100 local and international civil society organisations, all of which are committed to improving women’s rights and addressing gender inequality in Myanmar.
Aye Thada Hla spoke to Myanmar Now about the challenges of improving the rights of Myanmar women, who face a conservative, patriarchal society that encourages them to stay at home and be subservient to their husbands, even in cases of abuse or marital rape.
Question: What sort of activities does the Gender Equality Network implement?
Answer: We are pushing the new government to support more women in leading roles and to develop laws, policies and systems that prevent abuse of women. We have studied the culture and traditions of Myanmar society, and we need to reconsider the role of women.
Q: What sort of abuses and lack of rights do women experience in Myanmar?
A: Women abuses range from physical to mental to sexual, as well as discrimination in the economy and in traditions. We have conducted two research reports on this subject. The first one collected data on how women respond to abuse and violence, and why they experienced abuse. In this report, cases of abuse by spouses and boyfriends are mentioned, and also victims’ experiences of suffering abuse on public buses or in crowded areas, such as pagoda festivals. However, we could only ask questions designated in communities by the (government’s) Department of Medical Research. So, the number of respondents in the research is quite limited, and we could not collect information very thoroughly.
Another research topic of our reports is ‘Rooted customary practices’, which looks at cultural norms and social practices between different genders. This second research examines to what extent such practices are fuelling violence against women and causing discriminating against women in executive roles. We hope the findings of these reports will push the government to become active on this issue.
Q: For several years, NGOs and the government have worked on a National Prevention of Violence against Women bill, but it has still not been released. Can you tell us more about this bill?
A: Our organization provided technical support for drafting the bill and has worked together with the Ministry of Social Affairs, Relief and Rehabilitation since 2013. The bill has clearly defined terms for different forms of violence.
The meaning of ‘to stalks someone’ for example, covers not only following someone in person, but also includes disturbances through calling on the phone, and harassing them on the social media. The bill also clearly defines the term ‘rape’, and includes marital rape in which the husband has sex with his wife without her consent. If the wife brings legal charges against her husband, the government then has to take responsibility for safety of the wife and children. During legal proceedings, the government needs to support the wife and arrange a job or vocational training for her.
The bill also suggests the government should support children until the mother can fully take care of her children. Our Gender Equality Network gave such suggestions for the draft law. Domestic violence by a husband is now not regarded as violence in this country. During our research, wives did not regard non-consensual sex by their husbands as a marital rape. … But police, medical doctors, lawyers and judges must understand the legal procedures for court proceedings under this law after it has been approved and comes into force.
Q: Do you foresee any other difficulties when it comes to implementing this law?
A: In some rape cases, the courts do process them transparently. Also, rape cases in ethnic conflict areas are usually only taken to military courts. When we call for such cases to be examined in civil court, authorities do not accept it. They insist that cases involving security personnel be examined by the military court. This is one of our challenges going ahead.
Q: How common is online abuse of women in Myanmar?
A: We staged a movement called “The 16-day Movement” to eliminate abuse against women. The women we met in this campaign said they encountered two types of online abuses. The first one is the use of fake Facebook accounts to destroy the dignity of a woman and then extort money from them. The second one involves online sharing of private photos and videos files that were taken during the relation of former couples and lovers.
Most of the abused women on social networks did not get legal assistance. The women are not willing to file complaints as they don’t want to disclose the loss of virginity, or because their community does not accept it. They just want to make a report to Facebook to shut down the account of abuser.
I have suggested to women that their dignity does not rely on social media. Dignity is an inborn quality. I am not devaluing the role of virginity. But dignity is not totally relying on virginity. Not everybody is a saint.
Q: How much support are you getting from men to reduce violence?
A: Only a handful of men are committing abuses against women. We have set up Engaging Myanmar, which is led by men, to conduct education programmes for the prevention of women’s abuse and the promotion of women’s roles. This organization is disseminating knowledge about abuse, gender equality and the importance of men’s contribution in prevention of women abuse.
The organization will also conduct two types of research. The first one is about assessing the role of women. Questions will be raised to the men parliamentarians. The second one is to do research on men and why some commit abuses against women – what sort of situations does this occur in and how they view the women being abused.
Q: What are some of the root causes that women suffer abuse?
A: In primary school textbooks women are always portrayed in service roles, such as traffic police, nurses and teachers. However, men are seen in roles of authority and having expertise, being engineers, medical doctors and farmers. Moreover, traditional poems composed about the duties of fathers and mothers discriminate the capabilities of female parents… Such lessons have seriously impacted the views of young children, and eventually views of women that could lead to abuse.