Mar 30th, 2008
_ by Feraya
In traditional Shan society, girls are taught to be demure and subservient to her male counterparts, to brother, uncle, father, grandfather, etc. They are taught to regard the male as superior, to always be polite and show respect to them. This, I feel has contributed to lack of self worth and self confidence in Shan girls. Women play no role in decision-making at the community level. They are expected to marry, serve their husbands, and bear children. In the household, women do most of the cooking, cleaning and childcare tasks; outside the house they also fetch water, plant and collect vegetables.
In this kind of society women are even looked down upon and made to feel ashamed as if it is their own fault, if they are victims of sexual abuse or rape, and because of this stigma, some of these crimes have remained unreported.
Nevertheless, in the past, rural Shan women had recourse to customary legal processes to punish rapists. Cases would be brought before village elders, and if found guilty, men would be punished by a fine payable to the women, her parents and the village elders. Women also had the option of taking the cases to the township courts to be tried under the Burmese penal code (according to which the maximum penalty for rape is 10 years in prison.) Therefore there was some measure of legal protection available to women in the case of sexual violence.
However, this has now been eroded by the Burmese military’s contempt for the law. In numerous instances of rape the Shan women survivors attempted to seek justice within their community, turning to their parents and the village headmen according to their custom, but were inevitably thwarted by the absolute power exercised by the Burmese military in their areas.
Most of the information collected by Shan Women’s Action Network covers cases of rape committed by the Burmese military in the past six years. However, sexual violence has been commonplace in Shan State during the past four decades, since the Burmese military began operations against the ethnic resistance forces in the late 1950s.
The context of the civil war has given Burmese troops licence to practice sexual violence against local ethnic women with impunity. As potential supporters of the resistance, women are perceived as legitimate targets for violence. Sexual violence serves the multiple purposes of not only terrorizing local communities into submission, but also flaunting the power of the dominant troops over the enemy’s women, and thereby humiliating and demoralizing resistance forces. Furthermore, it serves as a “reward” to troops for fighting in the war.
The SPDC condone rape as a weapon of war. They rape, torture, and kill the victims. The officers commit rape and encourage the soldiers to gang rape.
The increased militarization led to more girls being vulnerable to rape. The SPDC soldiers rape the village girls and women while they were in the process of being forcibly relocated, they rape them within and outside relocation areas.
Furthermore, women and/or girls were raped by these soldiers while they were forced to porter. In many circumstances, the SPDC will not miss the opportunity to commit sexual violence on these vulnerable village girls. They also force them to be sex slaves or comfort women.
Despite the fact that Burma is a signatory to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, on 12 August 1949, for the protection of victims of war crimes, the regime has never sought to enforce these laws amongst its army.
War crimes cover grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and other serious violations of the laws of war, committed on a large scale in international as well as internal armed conflicts. Although the articles do not refer to rape and other crimes of sexual violence specifically when defining grave breaches, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), among others, has interpreted rape to be an example of “torture or inhuman treatment” or “wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health,” which are both grave breaches. Such acts include murder, extermination, rape, sexual slavery, and the enforced disappearance of persons and the crime of apartheid.
Evidence shows clearly that not only are there no serious efforts on the part of the military authorities to bring perpetrators of rape among their ranks to justice, but they are actively discouraging the reporting of such incidents by inflicting physical abuse, imprisonment and fines on any complainants.
In most of the rape incidents, the victims reported the abuse first to a family member and then to a village headman or other community leader. Together they would then advise the girl or woman of the best action to take. Often, the headman advised the family not to take the case any further as it would not only fail to bring justice, but might also be dangerous for the complainants. The fact that in one case a headman was himself beaten and tortured to death by SPDC troops for having reported a rape shows the disincentive for community leaders to get involved in such matters.
Although specific physical details are not available in most of the incidents, in several of the cases it was clear that the survivor was severely injured during the assault. In several cases, survivors were unconscious when found after the incident, and in at least two cases, the survivor was unable to walk. One of the cases was a woman who was gang-raped when she was 7-months pregnant and who then gave birth prematurely to her child. One of these cases were details available of the nature of the injury, namely of the five-year-old girl whose sexual organs had been seriously damaged. In some of the cases, even though they were not hospitalized, there was mention of unspecified illness, lasting for several months.
In one of the cases it revealed that the survivor had become pregnant following gang-rape by seven Burmese army soldiers.
The fact that one of the women repeatedly raped during a period of almost two months became insane is an indication of the level of trauma experienced by women subjected to rape. Another woman became an opium addict following the rape and abandoned her young child as a result.
The report “LICENSE TO RAPE” was published by the Shan Human Rights Foundation and the Shan Women’s Action Network in May 2002. However, the sexual violence by the SPDC is still ongoing and prevalent to this day.
The abuse inflicted on the Shan people by the Burmese military has forced many people to flee for their lives to Thailand.
The Thai government, however, does not recognize the Shan people as refugees and unlike the Karen and Karenni refugees, has not allowed them to set up refugees’ camps along the Thai-Burmese border. Consequently the Shans are forced to enter Thailand illegally, which leaves them extremely vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Despite this, Shan people are still coming to take refuge in Thailand. The estimated number of Shans working illegally in Thailand is at least 300,000. Among them are many girls and young women who have been trafficked into Thai brothels, where they face a wide range of abuse including sexual and other physical violence, debt bondage, exposure to HIV/AIDS, forced labour without payment and illegal confinement.
SWAN was set up on 28 March 1999 by a group of Shan women active in Thailand and along the Thai- Burma border seeking to address the needs of Shan women. In fact, before the formation of SWAN, Shan women in various locations had already been active in a number of projects to assist women. Even though informal networks were in place, it was felt that more could be achieved, in addressing both practical and strategic needs of Shan women, if a more concrete network among the various women could be formed.
This Shan women’s network would also be able to coordinate with other women’s organizations from Burma, as well as GOs and NGOs working with women locally, nationally and internationally.
SWAN’s work includes:-
1. Education Program:
- SWAN is operating twelve schools providing basic literacy skills, and one nursery with the collaborations of the Shan community along the Thai-Shan border.
- Production of Shan language text books
2. Health Program:
- SWAN runs a community clinic for displaced Shan on the Thai-Shan border
- HIV/AIDS education outreach work in Shan communities along the Thai-Shan border
- Production of Shan language leaflets on HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases & reproductive health
- Production of Shan language audio tapes on HIV/AIDS
3. Women’s Empowerment Program:
- Internship Program
In order to fulfil the need for capacity development of women to run SWAN’s programmes along the border and inside Shan State, SWAN started an internship program in 1999. Each year three women have been interns with SWAN. To date 9 women have finished the programme, and have been working for SWAN. This program has recently been expanded, in response to increased requests by the Shan community along the border and inside Shan State.Since 2003, SWAN has expanded its internship program into a one-year course. The program equips Shan women with the skills needed to be a community-based social worker. Six women graduated from the 2003 program, and now three have been working full-time at SWAN’s existing programs. The 2004 program was started in June, 2004.
- Trainings and workshops
SWAN has provided training to women on:
- Leadership Skills
- Facilitation Skills
- Documentation skills on violence against women
- Women’s Human Rights
- Gender Issues
- Electoral systems
4. Crises Support Program
- SWAN runs two crisis support centres
- Provision of counselling
- Referral of serious cases to other networks
- Provision of emergency assistance (access to health services, clothing, shelter and food) to survivors of violence and sexual assault
- Basic training at various sites along the Shan-Thai border for women to be local counsellors in order to assist survivors of violence and sexual assault in their communities, and to become peer educators on the issue of violence against women
5. Information & Documentation Program:
- Production of newsletters in Shan and Burmese
- Production of newsletters in English
- Production of Shan language booklets on gender, women & human rights
- Documentation of violence against Shan women
- Production of Shan language posters and leaflets to campaign against violence against women, and to protect the environment
- Production of Shan language comic booklets on trafficking and state violence
- Production of Shan language video tapes on trafficking in women
6. Income Generation Program
SWAN has also raised funds through:
SWAN is indeed a great inspiration for all of us; and may they grow from strength to strength in all their endeavours in serving and helping the Shan women and other women who are victims of SPDC directly or indirectly.