Suffering in silence? Sexual violence against women in Southeast Myanmar (December 2018)



“Since he began repeatedly raping me, I am afraid and feel insecure. He is not letting me go home. I feel shame because my neighbours are gossiping about me.”[1] These words ring true for many survivors of sexual violence in Southeast Myanmar, who face numerous obstacles to reporting their case and accessing justice.

The World Health Organisation defines sexual violence as “any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed, against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work.”[2] Sexual violence includes offences such as rape, unwanted sexual advances or sexual harassment, and the sexual abuse of children[3]or vulnerable groups, such as mentally or physically disabled people.

Sexual violence remains a widespread problem in Myanmar. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, the number of rape cases reported to the authorities increased from 1,100 in 2016 to 1,405 in 2017.[4] However, these figures cannot be taken as an accurate reflection of the situation on the ground. Social stigma and a culture of victim-blaming often prevents survivors from reporting sexual violence. Despite these challenges, survivors of conflict-related sexual violence in Southeast Myanmar are increasingly coming out to share their stories since the signature of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. Some local activists and researchers believe that the #MeToo movement has influenced some women to break the silence.[5] The Myanmar Times has reported that the number of reported rape cases has increased by 18.4% from 2016 to 2017.[6]

Conflict-related sexual violence continues to be perpetrated by the military and members of armed groups. In September 2018, the United Nations independent international fact-finding mission on Myanmar reported that the Tatmadaw had been using sexual violence as a ‘weapon of war’ in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan States since 2011. It furthermore noted that, given the scale and systemic nature of the abuses, sexual violence was used as part of a deliberate strategy to intimidate, terrorise or punish the local population,[7] repeating patterns of abuse seen in Southeast Myanmar in the conflict period. According to Human Rights Watch, the military continues to shield soldiers from prosecution, which contributes to a culture of impunity throughout the country.[8]

KHRG’s documentation reveals that sexual violence remains an ongoing issue in Southeast Myanmar. Between January 2012 and November 2018, KHRG received 52 reports covering 27 cases of sexual violence, including seven cases in 2018 alone. These included instances of rape, attempted rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment perpetrated by a wide range of actors, including local community members, teachers, government officials, Tatmadaw soldiers or members of ethnic armed groups. Children and women with mental illnesses were disproportionately victims of sexual violence.

Interviews with survivors of sexual violence reveal that many women do not know how to report cases, and face social stigma from their community and threats from the perpetrators. These factors deter women from reporting sexual violence in Southeast Myanmar. The reliance on informal, male-led justice mechanisms to handle sexual violence often undermines victims’ rights. Perpetrators in positions of power often approach the authorities to have their charges dropped.

The first half of this news bulletin assesses the characteristics of past and present sexual violence against women in Southeast Myanmar. It covers the time period from January 2012 to September 2018, which was characterised by substantial changes in the country. These include the 2012 Preliminary Ceasefire Agreement between the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Myanmar Government, which was followed by the signature of a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in 2015, as well as the political reform process that led to the victory of the National League for Democracy in the November 2015 General Election. In the second half, KHRG will analyse the root causes of sexual violence in Southeast Myanmar, as well as the challenges faced by survivors of sexual violence in order to formulate recommendations to address this phenomenon.