In Myanmar: Social Movements, Feminist Activism and Violence Against Women
Updated: Jan 5
Written by: Aye Thiri Kyaw
Edited by: Abigail Goh
Trigger Warning: This piece contains material about
domestic violence (assault).
In January 2020, the government of Myanmar has published a Prevention of violence against women (PoVAW) bill in the state’s media. The new proposed PoVAW bill finished drafting by the end of 2014, yet it remains to be discussed by the parliament. Despite being long-overdue and far from being perfect, this comes as a great success for the women’s rights activists who actively participate in the law drafting process.
Early women’s movements in Myanmar have been traced back to the days of the nationalist movement in the 1920s during the colonial period. However, women’s mobilisations were led by elite women, and they are intertwined with elements of nationalism and feminism. Firstly, it is pivotal to note that the elite women’s movement was detached from grassroots women. Secondly, it played a supportive role to reinforce the activities of the overall nationalist movement. The contemporary women’s rights movement has its roots in the collective armed struggle against the military government in the 1990s. Although it started to raise awareness about human rights violations committed by the regime, the women groups also work together as allies to challenge male domination among the opposition armed groups. This is historically relevant because it was a notable precursor wherein the women’s groups aimed for liberation through a mass movement within their society. Playing a contributory role in the democratic transition, women’s groups over the years evolved to form the earliest building blocks for feminist civil society comprising both local and international non-governmental organisations and individual experts in Myanmar. The Gender Equality Network, which is now a leading women’s rights network in the country, was later established formally. Although women’s groups tend to be pluralistic, what seems to be a general agreement among the different groups is that addressing women’s subordination is a priority (Phillips, 2002).
Although there is less evidence about the substantial policy change through social movements, those movements position themselves as the initial steps for changing the social values of the society. In doing so, women’s groups indirectly influence policymaking by changing public opinion and raising awareness. They do so by replacing old norms advancing the feminist agenda. For generations, women and men in Myanmar share the view that domestic violence, in particular, Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) was justified. It is reflected in the 2015 Demographic Health Survey, 51 per cent of women and 49 per cent men believe the social practice of wife-beating is justified. The symbolic meaning with the introduction of the Bill is that women could be protected from violence perpetrated by their abusive partners. The 2015 CEDAW report for Myanmar stated that the country never tolerates any sort of violence against women, including IPV. This text is particularly interesting because it shows that we have a new discourse around unacceptability of violence against women. In the 1999 and 2007 government report on the same topic, the reports stated that there is no discrimination against women. Myanmar women are well-protected by the law and traditions. This text representation changed in 2015 report stating that some traditions and customs might be harmful against women. This change in the narrative portrays violence against women as reprehensible and socially unacceptable. The recently proposed bill criminalises IPV, with recommended sanctions in the form of tenures of imprisonment. Consistent advocacy by rights groups has led to changes in the country’s official viewpoint on the issue and helped to amplify the need to recognise the lack of protection for women. This critical role played by women’s organisations through ongoing collaboration has been highlighted by the government of Myanmar (The Government of Myanmar, 2015). These efforts culminated in the official public announcement of PoVAW bill for the first time after several years of inconclusive discussion.
However, within the same 2015 CEDAW report, there is also another competing discourse which underscores the role of the family as the foundation for social cohesion. If the bill is passed into law, the text mentions that efforts will be made to reduce family separation and vulnerability. This may imply that even in cases of spousal violence, preventing the separation of the family members may be the topmost priority. Women are reminded that family cohesion should be a priority when they plan to resolve the issue of divorce resulting from IPV. This, in turn, results in entrapment of women and prevents them from escaping violence, leaving them in a dilemma and with feelings of guilt and shame if they left. The idea of the ‘Broken Family’ has a large amount of stigma in Myanmar society. There is much prejudice when it comes to children from broken homes. As a result, mothers remain in an abusive relationship for the sake of their children. The government also faces a dilemma where there are competing issues about family integration and family separation, which need to be weighed against each other.
“Myanmar is a society which opposes discriminatory and harmful norms and practices against women and girls but focuses on social cohesion and family integration to reduce family separation, communications breakdown, and vulnerability in the implementation of this law” – CEDAW 2015 Member state report.
However, existing global literature indicates that children who experience violence or witnessed inter-parental abuse during their childhood learned violent behaviour as a means to solve the conflicts and repeat similar patterns in their later relationships. Therefore, it is essential to look at the impact on children growing up in violent homes.
In conclusion, activists have long been advocating the government to pass the law since 2014. The recognition of violence against women as a problem is a welcome development brought by the new bill recently made available. This contemporary discourse is long over-due. In the face of competing values, Myanmar has to find an innovative solution that addresses concerns related to both family integration and unacceptable IPV.
Remark: This blog post is partly informed by the writer’s upcoming book chapter “Women’s movements, activism and policymaking in Myanmar’s transition” in Gender in the Transition: Feminist Politics, Resistance and Intersectionality in Myanmar edited by Jenny Hedström, Örebro University, and Elisabeth Olivius, Umeå University.