'Until her bones are broken': Myanmar activists fight to outlaw domestic violence

16 August 2019 - 48   - 0

YANGON (Reuters) - Cradling her one-year-old daughter in a house in southern Myanmar, 22-year-old Nu Nu Aye recalled the reasons her husband gave for beating her. She hadn’t looked after his rooster. She wouldn’t have sex with him.

In a meeting brokered by a village elder, he said he would beat her when “necessary”. “His abuse got worse after that,” she said. Finally, he tried to strangle her while she was sleeping.

In Myanmar, where the U.S.-funded Demographic and Health Survey suggested at least one-fifth of women are abused by a partner - a figure activists say is likely an underestimate because many cases are not reported – there is no specific law against domestic violence.

Women such as Nu Nu Aye, whose account Reuters could not independently verify, usually rely on intervention by local leaders to arrange settlements with partners whose abuse is largely regarded as a private affair.

Activists hope the first National Prevention and Protection of Violence Against Women law, which the government led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has been working on, will give women more protection from violence, including domestic abuse.

But the law, first proposed in 2013, remains stuck in the drafting stage, its provisions debated and revised over issues such as whether to outlaw marital rape.

The delays are a growing source of frustration for activists disappointed by the sluggish pace of reforms in an area entirely under the control of the civilian government, which rules with the military in an awkward power-sharing arrangement.

“We have been waiting too long for this law and are still waiting,” said one of the activists, Nang Phyu Phyu Lin.

The Ministry for Social Welfare and Resettlement did not respond to questions sent by Reuters and did not answer phone calls seeking comment.

Socially conservative and male-dominated, Myanmar lived under military rule for half a century until the election of the first fully civilian government in 2015.

With the obvious exception of Suu Kyi, women are largely absent from public leadership roles - there are no other women in the cabinet and just 10 per cent of lawmakers elected in 2015 were female.

A local saying, sometimes used in jest and sometimes seriously, posits: “If you beat your wife until her bones are broken, she will love with all her heart.”

Myanmar’s Penal Code, which dates back to the British colonial era, is vague and rarely used to prosecute cases of domestic violence. Its definition of rape is narrow and excludes marital rape.

“There is no protection as a woman in Myanmar society,” one 28-year-old woman, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, told Reuters.

When arguing with her husband over his drug use, she was forced to protect herself and her baby son with a kitchen knife, she said. “I didn’t know who to call for help.”

Enforcement of the law is especially weak in conservative rural areas, where women are often regarded as the property of their husbands, activists say.

Of 27 cases of domestic violence reported to police in southeastern Karen state in recent years, for example, just one reached the courts, said Naw Htoo Htoo, the program director at Karen Human Rights Group. The other cases were settled by a village elder, imposing “little or no fine” on perpetrators, she said, adding that those reported likely represent just a fraction of the total number cases.

In Dawei, a sleepy coastal town further to the south, 31-year-old Kyu Kyu Win recalled how her husband, accusing her of flirting with other men, dragged her along the ground by her hair. “If we have to stay together again, I will kill myself,” she said.

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