Last week, the Women’s League of Burma marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women by calling upon the incoming National League for Democracy Government to take a serious stance on the protection of women from sexual violence. According to their statement, “Women and girls in the Union of Burma are facing with different kinds of violence daily. Especially in ethnic areas, continuous impunity remains for the military personal who continued to commit sexual violence against women and girls.”
The International Day, observed each year on 25 November, was initiated by the United Nations General Assembly in 1999 to recognize the widespread physical and sexual violence against women around the world. Considering that globally, one out of three women have experienced physical or sexual violence, it is crucial for the international community to address this pandemic and the gender inequality that fuels it. In Burma, sexual violence is widespread and perpetrators – particularly those within the Burma Army – share complete impunity from prosecution.
Many cases of sexual violence against women in Burma are reported in active conflict zones, such as in Kachin and Shan State, where the act may be used as a horrific yet institutionalized tactic of the Burma Army. However, as documented by the Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF), the Burma Army has also engaged in sexual violence in a number of ceasefire areas. Since April 2015, the SHRF has documentedeight instances of sexual violence, including the gang rape of a woman in Ke See Township by 10 Burma Army soldiers. The organization has noted that in only two of these cases the perpetrators were arrested; however the military’s impunity has prevented any public inquiry into their punishments.
Sexual violence is pervasive and is not just used as a weapon of war by the Burma Army. Even within communities, occurrences of sexual violence are common with justice often remaining elusive. In a recent report Salt in the Wound, the Karen Women’s Organization has also highlighted the increasing incidence of physical and sexual violence against women throughout refugee camps along the Thailand-Burma border. The study, which documents 289 cases of sexual and physical violence in the camps between 2011 and 2013, noted the lack of an effective judicial response to the crimes. For instance, nearly 60% of the sexual violence cases resulted in inadequate justice outcomes, providing a high-degree of impunity for perpetrators.
So far, relevant authorities, whether in Burma or along the Thailand-Burma border, have staggered in its attempt to confront the widespread incidences of sexual violence committed against women from various communities of Burma. Despite signing the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in 2014, violent crimes against women continue unabated. In fact, according to Burma Campaign UK, Burma is actively violating nine out of 12 of its commitments under this declaration, including the responsibility to hold perpetrators of sexual violence accountable.
Burma’s National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women(NSPAW), which seeks to address gender-based violence and promote the access of women to education, healthcare, and career opportunities, has also encountered a number of significant obstacles. The NSPAW attempts to fulfill Burma’s obligations to the international treaty, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), of which Burma is a signatory. A joint report from the Global Justice Center and the Leitner Center, however, notes that the plan fails to address the structural limitations to achieving gender equality; namely the 2008 Constitution, an outdated legal system, and the power of the male-dominated military in Burma’s political sphere.
Even the Anti-Violence Against Women Law (AVAW), which was lobbied for and contributed to by a number of local women’s rights groups comprising the Gender Equality Network, has struggled to take flight. Most notably, despite the efforts of these groups, the draft law failed to address the issue of sexual violence in armed conflict situations. Meanwhile, the widely condemned and flagrantly discriminatory race and religion protection laws have raced through parliament, prompting serious concern as to whether the Burma Government really understands gender equality at all. For instance, in reference to the harsh punishments for adultery set forth under the Monogamy Bill, Human Rights Watch has pointed out that, “Laws criminalizing consensual sex disproportionately impact women. For example, a rape victim may be deterred from filing a criminal complaint if the failure to win a conviction puts her at risk of prosecution for adultery.”
So far, Burma has not taken any considerable steps to address the high incidence of sexual violence facing women and the fact that perpetrators of these crimes are provided a high degree of impunity. With a new government soon to be in power, it is a prime moment to take strong, decisive action in regards to violence against women. The Burma Government must begin by publicly pledging to comply with its international obligations and commitments, as set forth under the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, along with those prescribed by CEDAW, to dismantle the institutionalization of sexual violence, both within and out of conflict. In addition, it should demonstrate a commitment to countering the discrimination against women by encouraging greater female participation and representation, especially in the political sphere, starting with the current peace process.