Rising child rape cases in Myanmar show desperate need for action

Hundreds of cases of sexual assault are being reported in Myanmar every year – and the numbers are rising. And while sex education and attitudes are part of the problem, what is really lacking is leadership and strong institutions. 

By Tan Zhi Xin

The stories of Myanmar’s children caught up in recent violence are difficult to read. A five-year-old girl raped in Rakhine State and a seven-year-old girl who suffered the same fate. A nine-year-old girl sexually assaulted and murdered in Tanintharyi Region and an attack by a grown man on a seven-year-old boy and a four-year-old girl in Mandalay.

From January 2016 to November 2016, there were a total of 800 cases of reported rape against women and children in Myanmar; 500 of those against young people. This is a marked increase from previous years and a sad new reality. While the world is caught up with Brexit, Donald Trump, Park Guen Hye and such, the people of Myanmar people are struggling for justice that might never come. What has happened to the Golden Land?

Culture of silence

The actual number of victims of sexual crime is believed to be under-represented on the official record due to a culture of silence. “Most of the time it is carried out by family members, neighbours, relatives or someone close to the victims’ families,” police Major Khin Maung Thin from Mandalay, where cases have doubled, told AFP. “Brothers abuse sisters and fathers abuse daughters,” he said.

And when these cases happen, families tend to be hesitant to report the case due to the stigma and taboo associated with it. They fear that by making an official report, one shame becomes two. On other occasions, victims simply let the matter rest because they were ashamed of what has happened. The only way to forget the humiliation is to bury the matter deep inside them and not let anyone know.

Another factor in the suppression of these stories is the tradition of a private settlement where rape victims who survive the assault are forced to marry her rapist. “I don’t have full confidence that the sentence would be just. If the other party offers money, the case could change,” said an 18-year-old victim who was kidnapped and repeatedly raped by her 32-year-old former boyfriend.

And in these cases, it has almost become the norm that reconciliation means offering monetary “compensation”. The victims and their family, often living in poverty, have no other solution for redress, bringing the case to the court would require a hefty sum of money that they can rarely afford.

Adding to the problem of transparency is Myanmar’s highly conservative attitude towards sex. “Our society is not open about sex, but we can teach people, including children, what is responsible sexual behaviour. If we do not take action, there will always be sexual abuse cases involving the vulnerable,” explains U Thar Nyunt, a parent who lives in Yangon’s Hlaing Township.

This conservative attitude is the main culprit behind the lack of proper sex education. Without it, not only do children not know where is the boundary for physical contact between opposite sexes, but parents are also unaware of the need to protect their young children from sexual abuse. It is also very common for perpetrators to claim they do not realise that the acts they were committing are indictable.

Lacking the rule of law

Against this backdrop, calls for justice are growing. Protests to demand longer sentences for child rape have taken to the streets and organisations like Pyo Khin Thi Foundation, Legal Clinic Myanmar, and Akhara Group have popped up to provide assistance to the victims and their families.

“We have the death penalty for drug dealers and traitors. Why not child rapists?” asks Thein Nyunt, a lawyer who headed the New National Democracy Party. But one might be tempted to ask why, despite the efforts of the people, does the situation remain so dark? While corruption is often cited, the root of the problem is actually the lack of the rule of law. Standards and regulations are not adequately enforced and followed.

For example, according to Article 376 of the Penal Code, rape is punishable by a sentence ranging from 10 years imprisonment to life in jail. In practice, penalties are less than ten years – even after appeal.

Activist Win Win Khaing explains, “What we need is for the judges is to hand down effective sentences. We don’t see anything wrong with the laws.” Meanwhile, there are also concerns about the work of the police. According to reports, cases are often not handled vigorously and dutifully. Instead, they slack off in their duties.

Lawyer U Robert San Aung said in an interview that, “What happens now is that police do not immediately open a case when a rape is reported at a police station. Instead, they procrastinate by giving various excuses; such as the head of a police station is absent.”

Violation of the police manual and criminal code of procedure aside, there are larger consequences. Sex offenders know that the police do not take their work seriously, and there is a low chance of them being punished.

“So, the first thing we need to do is to force police to work in line with the law. [The] upper echelons of the judicial system need to monitor and punish judges who don’t perform their duties well. Only then, can this problem be solved”, San Aung adds.

‘Hell on earth’ for the Rohingya

And children are not the only ones to suffer from the country’s lack of strong institutions. In the north-west, killing and persecution of the so-called Rohingya continues. Houses are burnt, women raped and civilians killed as thousands of people have had to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh to seek shelter.

It seems a long time since the world had hoped that the transition to democracy would bring new hope for the persecuted. However, since the new government took office, Aung San Suu Kyi has been relatively silent on the treatment of the so-called Rohingyas. All she has done is appoint another body to look into the situation in Rakhine, but their work and mandate is largely a whitewash.

Fundamentally, it is the lack of the rule of law that is driving all these societal problems, and it is this that requires immediate attention. While the government seems to have been gearing up its efforts by amending the Child Law and establishing commissions to look into the Rohingya issue, a better future will only remain a distant vision unless the nation’s institutions, values and sense of justice are fundamentally reformed.