While a United States court of law has a clear definition of what sexual abuse is – what it looks like and entails – Myanmar’s British colonial era laws don’t depend on definitions. The laws in present-day Myanmar, for example, would criminalize a man’s assault on a woman if he had “intent to outrage her modesty.” This means that the assailant’s intent to outrage another’s modesty would need to be proved in a court of law.
Women in Myanmar suffer from sexual violence in ways that differ from other women around the world. A woman in Myanmar reporting an act of sexual abuse would have difficulty being taken seriously and getting someone convicted for the crime. While this is partly due to the social stigma that surrounds sexual abuse in Myanmar, it has a lot more to do with the country’s outdated legal system, which makes it doubly hard for women who are suffering from sexual abuse.
While the country is currently transitioning to a democratically elected government, many of Myanmar’s lawmakers aren’t keen on transitioning their outdated laws.
Members of the male-dominated establishment associated with the previous military-run government have stalled a new law, the National Prevention of Violence Against Women bill, which seeks to modernize Myanmar’s laws and provide greater protection for women.
The new law hoped to curb sexual violence in conflict-prone areas of Myanmar, in which the issue is most common. It would define sexual violence in a way that would allow soldiers to be held accountable for rape committed in conflict zones. But the military’s backlash against the law is strong, and its influence in the transitioning Myanmar still holds a lot of weight.
“The military is powerful,” says Daw Khin Lay, the Director of Triangle Women Support Group, “and [some officials] don’t want to anger the military.”
Critics of the proposed bill have asserted that the country’s outdated laws already protect women, and that the new laws seek to punish men rather than to protect women.
Some of these critics have changed the proposed law completely, rewriting passages that defined sexual violence in a way that would actually enable convictions.
In a report from last year, the United Nations cited the 2013 Gender Inequality Index, which ranks Myanmar at 83rd of 87 countries. It also cited the 2012 Social Institutions and Gender Index, which places Myanmar in place 44 of 86, coming in 9th out of 9 countries in East Asia and the Pacific.
The report also explains the ways in which Myanmar’s rapidly changing government will affect its women.
Though the 2008 Constitution requires equality between men and women, a report by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women says it also contains “contradictory provisions and important gaps that vitiate quality.”
The report also mentions one of Myanmar’s “most significant initiatives,” the 10-year National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women. The plan, which began in 2013 and will continue through 2022, is anchored in the country’s new constitution and is being supported by various agents, along with the UN.
These are steps in the right direction for the women of Myanmar. However, women will need to be included in what are now closed-door sessions if perpetrators are truly to be held accountable and if women’s rights are finally to be held to a higher standard.
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