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Burma’s ‘transition’ leaves women's rights behind

Pa-Oh women on the road in Burma

Women from the Pa-Oh ethnic group in Burma. Paul Arps under a Creative Commons Licence

Last week’s events to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women were an important reminder of the scale of violence faced by women across the world. It is clear that violence – whether physical, economic, psychological or structural – is an experience shared by women and girls of all creeds, colours and ethnicities. Concern with the violence faced by women, though, sits alongside many other issues on the international development agenda. Balancing between these competing – though not mutually exclusive – interests necessarily weakens the response to any single element, often at the expense of the most marginalized. Nowhere is this more evident than Burma.

The list of social, political and economic issues facing Burma has been well rehearsed. Of these, perhaps the most damaging is the violence directed towards women, particularly those in the country’s ethnic communities. Despite the narrative around Burma’s transition, this violence has continued unabated. Indeed, it is being exacerbated by governments, investors and development actors intent on developing Burma, despite clear warnings of ongoing human rights violations. Acknowledgement by the UN that Burma’s legal frameworks contravene norms of international law and promote gender inequality have not galvanized action to safeguard the human rights of women. Nor have well-evidenced accusations of crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by the Burma Army. The clearest manifestation of this inaction is the continued spectre of sexual violence.

Since 2010, the Women’s League of Burma has documented 118 separate incidents of sexual violence and attempted sexual assault across Burma’s ethnic communities – a number believed to be a fraction of the total abuses taking place. Crimes against women in these communities are committed systematically and with impunity. Survivors are forced to fear speaking out, and human rights defenders working with them face daily harrassment from state authorities. Despite the rhetoric around Burma’s transition, concrete action against the perpetrators of these crimes remains absent. Whatever transition is happening in Burma, it is not being felt in the country’s most marginalized communities.

While the country’s backsliding reform process has been acknowledged, nothing is being done to address the root causes of the human rights abuses faced by women. The international community has been quick to seize upon investment opportunities in the country’s ethnic states, citing their potential to combat the structural violence faced by women through the creation of jobs. Investment in marginalized communities represents an opportunity for women to lift themselves out of decades-long cycles of violence and poverty. This is a well-rehearsed narrative, in which there is some truth. But this overly simplistic analysis of the root causes of the violence faced by women is leading to wrong-headed policies to eliminate it.

The contention that investment in ethnic communities will reduce violence against women ignores the primary driving force behind it – the de facto impunity of the Burma Army to commit human rights abuses. Burma’s legal framework has created an environment in which the military can rape, torture, forcibly evict and extort without fear of repurcussion. The link between increased militarization and human rights abuses is clear. The security provided to investments by the Burma Army is directly correlated with the insecurity, fear and intimidation of civilians, particularly women. There are many debates surrounding women’s economic empowerment, but one thing is evident: investment in Burma’s ethnic communities is driving violence against women, not undermining it.

Partly owing to this enthusiasm to invest in Burma, there has been a collective readiness to trust the Burma government’s commitments to ending sexual violence at the hands of the Burma Army. Last year, the government published the National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women (NSPAW) – a strategy paper to uproot the discrimination and violence faced by women. Although welcomed as a purposive step forwards, the ambitious plan has not yet brought any change to the lives of women facing rape, torture and displacement. In light of this, the good faith of the international community would appear to be misplaced. Yet the belief in the sincerity of the government continues to undermine calls for the substantive reforms needed to safeguard the human rights of women.

The same can be said of the UK government-led Declaration of the Committee to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. The international response to the Summit held in June of this year in London, and the Declaration which resulted, showcased the global support for eradicating sexual violence in conflict. When the Burma government became a signatory, they were lauded for their reformism and desire to build a more peaceful country. Six months later, however, no steps have been taken to implement it – and militarization across the country continues to drive human rights abuses, including sexual violence. Moreover, the holistic reponse required to eliminate sexual violence in conflict remains absent, not least because of the exclusion of women from the conversation surrounding it.

Burma has the lowest levels of women’s political participation of any ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) country, and one of the lowest globally. This is evidenced by the omission of women from discussions establishing a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement to end decades-long conflict between ethnic armed organizations and the Burma Army. Women in communities effected by conflict know that a ceasefire is a necessary but insufficient condition for establishing a sustainable peace, and ending sexual violence at the hands of the Burma Army. To achieve that, a political dialogue between conflicting parties must include the voices of women – whose experiences of conflict are distinct from, and often more acute than, those of men. As long as the terms of women’s participation in Burma’s political and public life are determined by men, the violence which characterizes the lives of so many will not cease.

The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Campaign and International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women are timely reminders of the discrimination and violence which women across the world face every day. In Burma, this is an issue which cuts to the core of the power structures which have subjugated women and girls for decades. If the international community is serious about helping shape Burma’s development for the better, the human rights of women must be their focus.

David Baulk is a Gender and Development consultant, focusing on the human rights of women in Burma. He is based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and can be reached on davidbaulk [at] gmail.com 

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