Violence against women and girls is a silent public health emergency in Myanmar — one compounded by social taboos which prevent survivors from seeking help.
Marital rape is legal. Sexual assault, particularly by domestic partners, largely goes unpunished. If a woman reports sexual violence, she is usually blamed and stigmatized for it.
Khine Lwin Myint, 22, has come up with an idea which she thinks can begin to chip away at the culture of impunity.
Khine is co-founder of DIVAS, a start-up which recently won first prize in the Women’s Empowerment category at a Hackathon supported by UNDP and Ooredoo Myanmar.
“Me and my team want to help the victims of sexual assault as much as we can,” she says.
‘To Lon May’ (For Our Women) is a ground-breaking Burmese-language mobile app that Khine and her two partners developed to help survivors of sexual assault and to raise public awareness of the issues associated with it. It will show women how to get information, counseling, healthcare, and how to talk to law enforcement.
It’s an issue that is close to Khine’s heart.
“It’s important for me. Most of our people think that these cases are shameful for victims. They believe that this kind of things happen because of the behaviour of the victims, like not wearing suitable clothing or having a flirty personality,” she says.
Internal migration plays a big role in the culture of impunity — domestic workers and internal rural migrants are the most vulnerable to sexual exploitation, violence, trafficking and forced marriage. The young and the poor often don’t know their rights.
Poor rural families with young daughters are often forced to send them away to work as domestic servants.
The girls, often underage, are sent to an unfamiliar city, away from the protection of their loved ones. They are often not in a position to report sexual assault and exploitation at the hands of their employer. If an attack takes place, they may be unable to return home due to stigma and shame.
“People criticize the victims based on their beliefs and own judgement. We must let them know, and make them accept, that this is not victim’s fault,” Khine says.
According to the 2015 Myanmar Labour Force Survey Report, 1.13 million children aged five to 17 years, or 9.3 percent of children are working.
The 2017 Report on Sexual Assault from the Myanmar Ministry of Home Affairs reveals that child rape accounts for more than half of all reported sexual assaults. The number of reported rapes increased from 1,100 in 2016 to 1,405 in 2017.
However the real number is likely much higher.
Khine hopes her app will help women begin to put the blame where it belongs — on their attackers — and that they’ll be supported instead of shamed when they make a complaint.
This year the Myanmar government will submit the draft Prevention and Protection of Violence Against Women Act to Parliament. If it passes, it will offer Myanmar women legal protection from domestic violence, marital rape, sexual violence and workplace harassment, and will provide legal and medical support to survivors.
In the meantime, Khine’s work will continue. DIVAS has received a cash prize of about US$4,500 to help with startup costs and office space for one year, commercial and technical support Ooredoo Myanmar, incubation support from IMPACT HUB Yangon, and USD$5,000 from UNDP.
“Within one year, we plan to launch support services for survivors of sexual assault by focusing on campaigns for students, with support from Ooredoo and UNDP. In the future, we plan to add preventative services for girls and women,” Khine says, adding modestly. “I don’t think myself a pioneer of women’s right in Myanmar. I want to help Myanmar women as much as I can.”
Illustrations and photo in order: Bygermina/Shutterstock.com; UNDP Myanmar; Black Hill Design/Shutterstock.com; Rudall30/Shutterstock.com; Olga Lebedeva/Shutterstock.com