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Speaking out about violence against women in Myanmar

By Sarah McCan, Trócaire Programme Manager in Myanmar

In Myanmar, a country where a gathering of five or more people was not allowed until recent years and where fear still prevails around public gatherings, to see the throngs of women, men and children attend the second ever public event marking of the ‘16 Days of activism against violence against women’ felt truly historic.

The public event was held in the People’s Park, the largest park in Yangon that leads up to the glimmering Shwedagon Pagoda. It was a brilliantly chosen location as the park is crowded with families on a Sunday afternoon and many of these families were drawn to the music, the colour and the noise of the event that took place.

Rows of tents showcased the work of more than 100 organisations active on women’s rights in Myanmar. Books, pamphlets, stickers, posters and cartoons were handed out to passers-by to inform them of the many issues facing women in Myanmar today; from trafficking and domestic violence to the very low representation of women in public life (a mere 4.6% of Parliament seats are taken by women here). Murals, posters and art work hung on trees with powerful messages on women’s rights and anti-violence. One positive message that caught my eye in particular said ‘Not violent, not silent, women and men hand in hand’.

At the entrance and exit to the event, petitions were being signed calling for the release of women activists who have been imprisoned because of their work – a stark reminder of the risks facing women’s human rights defenders all over the world.
The Maynmar people love drama, music and dance and this was effectively used to raise awareness of key issues and rights.  The theme of the event was ‘From peace in the home to peace in the world’. In a mock up of a house, actors in one room presented a harrowing scene of a beaten woman, while in a second room, where domestic violence had been overcome, actors presented a family living in harmony.

Meanwhile, close by on stage, a group of women chanted and sang, challenging Burmese myths and customs that condone violence against women, leading to spontaneous and uproarious rounds of applause from the audience. Speeches followed, and then more songs and dance, and a quiz on facts surrounding violence against women in Myanmar that led to very active audience participation.

16 Days of activism against violence against women

Caption: Throngs of women, men and children attend the second ever public event marking of the ‘16 Days of activism against violence against women’ . Photographs: Catriona Kapman/Trócaire.

I learnt that the only law in place to currently address violence against women dates back to 1861, when Myanmar was a British colony. Needless to say this law is massively outdated and inadequate today. One of Trócaire’s partners, the Gender Equality Network, is currently working with the Government of Myanmar to draft new laws on violence against women to address this huge gap in legislation.

The ‘16 days of activism against violence against women’ is an annual international campaign that starts on 25 November, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and ends on 10 December, Human Rights Day. The campaign aims to raise awareness about gender-based violence as a human rights issue at the local, national, regional and international level.

Here in Yangon, the 16 Days event definitely raised awareness in a creative and inspiring way.  As families of all ages and backgrounds came and went over the course of the hot and dusty afternoon, I definitely felt that this event reached many people who might never have heard of this campaign before or of the epidemic that is violence against women. One in three women globally are affected by violence, and here in Myanmar this issue is just beginning to be openly discussed and highlighted.

As the event closed and twilight fell, we were urged to spread the word about the campaign and to wear something white for the next 16 Days to highlight violence against women. I think we all left committing to do that and more to end this gross violation of women’s rights.

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