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Rape avoidance 101: Government advice on curbing sexual assault elicits scorn

On 9 February, women's rights advocates in Yangon rallied against a taxi driver accused of the rape and murder of a 26-year-old employee of the national Food and Drug Administration. (Photo: DVB)

Last month, the Ministry of Home Affairs published a sensational document on social media, in which women consuming alcohol, lax family values and the absence of religious instruction were cited as some of the leading causes of the rape of women and children.

The five-page document was notable as much for its glaring absence as it was for its confident assertions that some females’ behaviour and dress were among the root causes of an apparent rise in rape incidences in recent years. While girls are implicitly chided for drinking alcohol and showing too much skin, there is no explicit acknowledgement of the primary element in rape cases: the rapist — in the vast majority of cases a man — whose actions constitute a crime consciously perpetrated, and whom most progressively minded people would agree is the sole individual responsible for its repercussions.

Where men are indirectly referenced, it’s with the caveat of external, corrupting influences. In this document those are said to be easy access to pornography and the use of sexual stimulant pills. It implicitly indicates that without these factors, men would not rape.

Social media erupted almost instantly, accusing the ministry of victim-blaming and police of inaction

“You shithead! How many girls you saw in rape cases wore revealing clothes and were intoxicated? Idiots! Many girls were raped when they were on their way back from school or work,” said Hla Myo Kyaw, in a comment responding to the ministry’s original post.

“Even when a girl walks down the street naked, the police can only arrest her for public indecency. But no man is entitled to rape girls. You beggars! You idiots have no idea about rights. Such idiots are exercising their authority, it is no surprise that such rape cases are rampant in this country.”

Headed by Lieutenant-General Kyaw Swe, the Home Affairs Ministry called upon parents, local communities and young girls to combat rising rates of sexual assault, urging family, teachers and even the media to “enforce [modest] dress of the girls.”

The ministry may claim the public service announcement was well-intentioned, but multiple calls to a spokesperson went unanswered, leaving DVB unable to obtain comment from one of the country’s most far-reaching institutions.

Rape increasing countrywide

According to the 15 February post, the number of reported rapes rose last year. Police recorded 508 assaults in 2017, compared with 429 in 2016. Rape against girls under 16 also increased to 897, for which multiple factors including access to pornographic material, poor parental supervision and, astoundingly, “lack of knowledge about society and laws” were blamed.

But the assertions peddled by the ministry are demonstrably false and serve to do nothing more than discourage women from reporting an assault. According to the World Health Organization, most victims of sexual violence know their attacker, who is most often a past or present partner. The ministry does not advise women or the community at large on how to combat assault by one’s own husband or boyfriend. It does advise that a parent or other responsible guardian constantly monitor women and girls.

Women’s rights activist May Sabe Phyu blasted the Home Affairs Ministry for re-enforcing harmful assumptions about gender-based violence.

“The main grounds for rape cases they have claimed were not correct and it’s reinforced the ideas of telling people [that] ‘you should take your own responsibility to prevent rape cases’ and denying like they do not have responsibility. Girls and women will not be protected even [if] they dress well, covered the whole body, or not going out anywhere. In order to protect their girls, every mother or parents could not just stay home and watch [them] twenty-four seven.”

Death to rapists?

A string of high-profile rape cases in the past 12 months has re-energised calls for a change in law that would allow for capital punishment in rape cases. The rape and death of a two-year-old in Mandalay Region and a 26-year-old in Yangon have shocked communities into rallying for stricter punishments.

Myanmar National Human Rights Commission member Yu Lwin Aung warned against capital punishment, telling DVB last week: “Some people are demanding death penalties and public executions for the rapists. The demands are grounded in emotions. I do not want to urge to kill somebody. The punishment should be in line with the laws. It is important that the inhumane offenders are disconnected from the society. They should be jailed. There should be no prison sentence reductions or amnesties for them.”

Among those clamouring for a return to capital punishment is former singer Lily (Li Li) Naing Kyaw, who recently founded the civil society group 4 Women’s Voice.

After launching a signature campaign on the grounds of the Shwedagon Pagoda last week, she told DVB that rapists are “inhumane” offenders whose crimes should cost them their lives.

“In 2013, the Parliament disapproved a bill demanding death penalties for rapists. In 2016-2017, there is a significant surge in the number of rape cases; both child rapes and rapes against girls older than 16 years of age. There are no justifications for child rape. Sex offenders have many other ways to satiate their sexual desire. Sexual abuses against innocent children cannot be tolerated at all.”

Hailing from a military family, Lily Naing Kyaw is a prominent supporter of the country’s armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw. She appeared alongside military-linked publisher “Bullet” Hla Swe at a rally organised by the “Tatmadaw Admirers Group” late last year. Questioned on whether her pro-death penalty stance extended to military personnel accused of sexual crimes, the activist took a more moderate approach and lashed out at those “inciting enmity” against the armed forces.

“I know there are accusations against the members of the military for rape cases. There should be solid evidence to accuse Tatmadaw [personnel] of such abuses. The Tatmadaw has its institutionalised set of rules and punishments for such offences. If a member is convicted of sexual abuse, I believe the Tatmadaw will investigate and sentence the convicted,” she said.

And while the death penalty may be a stronger deterrent for violent sexual crimes, Burma’s struggling legal system and out-of-date forensics capabilities make the prospect a chilling one. The United States, with its far superior scientific testing capabilities, has executed innocent people. US District Court Judge Michael Ponsor told the Death Penalty Information Center that any state that employs capital punishment can and will make mistakes.

But Lily Naing Kyaw stands firm in her belief that the Burmese judiciary is up to the challenge, saying: “This is not our business. It is the responsibility of the government, law enforcement agencies and judges to make sure the investigation and prosecution are carried out properly with due justice.”

Government lacking consistent messaging

Yangon Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein attracted the ire of women’s rights organisations in 2017 when he cautioned against Thingyan revelry that exposed intoxicated women and girls dancing on the water festival stages known as pandals. Issuing a curb on alcohol sales and banning for-profit pandals, the minister said: “We are ending the situation whereby parents are horrified by witnessing their daughters on the pavilions.”

His words did little to reduce sexual assault that year — Yangon topped the list of rapes of both children and adults, with 192 and 78 cases respectively. Rape against females over 16 years of age was only higher in Ayeyarwady Region, where the ministry lists 87 reported instances.

The comments regarding minors are out of step with policies unveiled by the Department of Social Welfare in 2016. Minister Dr. Win Myat Aye urged victims to contact a hotline (tel. 067-494 999 / 067-404 222) to report sexual crimes. But offences against adult women remain largely shielded by stigma and an unmotivated law enforcement apparatus that prefers community intervention, despite laws providing for hefty prison sentences for those found guilty.

The national age of consent is 14. Under Burmese law, all sexual conduct with an individual 13 or under is considered statutory rape. The criminal code does not guard against marital rape, leaving wives without legal recourse.

The Ministry of Information, ostensibly an office without much authority on social problems like sexual assault, dipped a toe in the water in October 2016. A cartoon by Maung Lin shows an exchange between a woman — midriff exposed and wearing short shorts — and what appears to be a female authority figure. After expressing safety concerns, she’s told to simply “wear clothes that cover up your body” — as if it were such a simple fix.

Policy must be consultative

The statistics published by the Home Affairs Ministry, while upsetting, come as no surprise to most women in Burma. In Yangon newsrooms, female reporters routinely recount instances of harassment in both their personal and professional lives. The ministry’s recommendation that women obsessively guard their safety by dressing conservatively is surely no comfort to women in communities where modest attire is already prescribed by their faith or local customs. Rape and assault is reported in every community, in every country. Women in Burma dressed in abayas and bikinis are raped alike.

Several days after the ministry’s divisive post, a contributing writer for the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar, Maung Thaung Win, weighed in. Describing himself as a former diplomat, Maung Thaung Win provided a number of tips he believed would help women avoid rape, such as “decent and proper [clothing], not showy,” which, according to the op-ed, show too much skin. The consequence of bared flesh could be that the “girls might be mistaken with the call girls or hookers.” He also chided parents who leave their girls home alone, describing the unattended as “prey” for rapists.

His views, which may seem outdated in some quarters, are undoubtedly in-line with many members of the community, and certainly the Ministry of Home Affairs. Maung Thaung Win did not respond to DVB’s interview request.

Acting director of the Gender Equality Network (GEN) Kaythi Myint Thein said the ministry’s most recent line on the issue is more of the same from the government.

“I saw that news and we, organisations working on gender justice, are disappointed by their announcement. GEN has been continuously advocating the government and various stakeholders including community about the root causes of the violence against women and not to victim-blame.

“It is not strange that the government produced that kind of announcement because this mis-belief [is] deeply rooted by the discriminatory social norms and cultural practices,” she told DVB via email.

While Home Affairs officials were unreachable, the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement was. Speaking to DVB more than 10 days after the document on rape was released, Deputy Director-General Yupar Mya said she had not heard of the document and thus could not comment. She did advise, however, that cautions on modest dress are “preventative measures.”