This post is part of our 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence series.
By Karen Kirk
This year’s 16 Days of Gender Activism is focused around three themes: violence perpetrated by state actors, domestic violence and the role of small arms and sexual violence during and after conflict. In recent weeks, the gender-based violence team at WITNESS built a series of video playlists on the Human Rights Channel focusing on these issues across the world. My playlist focused on several regions in Southeast Asia—including Kashmir, Sri Lanka and Nepal—but Myanmar/ Burma presented a particularly complex collision of factors.
Over the last half-century, the Burmese have endured a violent military regime, censorship, ethnic tension, and religious conflict. As these videos indicate, the conflict in Burma affects minority populations and their women the most.
On a legal level, widespread and systematic rape is a weapon of psychological warfare, recognized under the Geneva Convention as a war crime and a crime against humanity. On an inter-personal level, rape is an act of control—when someone is raped, their attacker is establishing a hierarchy that perpetuates the perception that the genders are not equal. Every time a rape occurs, this division widens. On a societal level, violence against women can have similar consequences, magnifying hierarchies among ethnicities or even between armed forces and citizens.
In the first video, Burmese activist and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi explains how the armed forces have used rape to demean women, intimidate communities, and fracture the country along ethnic lines. She explains, “every case of rape divides our country between peoples, between genders, between the military and ordinary citizens.” Suu Kyi asserts that we—both men and women—must no longer see as “ready victims.” By changing this perception of women, Burma can minimize the inequalities between genders and heal the divisions between populations.
Although other ethnic groups are targeted—including the Kachin, Shan, Karen, and Karenni—the Rohingya have suffered some of the most extreme discrimination, persecution, and displacement in recent years. 21-year-old Rahima, a Rohingya woman, recounts her experience as an internally displaced person (IDP) in the following video. The Rohingya have lived in Burma for generations, but they are not recognized as citizens and so, according to the government, do not have claim to their land. Rahima recalls her mother telling her they would be killed if they did not flee their home and their land.
Rahima’s story shows us how the military was able to control her family by raping, mutilating, and killing Rohingya women. More recently, a Human Rights Watch Report found many instances of the army attacking Rohingya civilians during the inter-ethnic violence that flared during the summer of 2012. They reportedly raped women, looted houses, and fired live rounds into crowds of Rohingya.
These videos highlight the use of rape as a weapon in the political and religious context in Burma, and call for a change in the status quo. This issue is not unique to Burma; rape & gender-based violence are common by-products of conflict that can be seen throughout Southeast Asia as well as other parts of the world.
How can we get men and women to think differently about violence against women? Can we eliminate rape as a weapon of war? Find an event and participate in the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Campaign to spread awareness about GBV during and post-conflict.
Terrorizing Refugees: Burma Uses Rape Against Minorities (New York Times)
Burma: Rape as a Weapon (Nobel Women’s Initiative)
Impunity Prolonged: Burma and its 2008 Constitution (International Center for Transitional Justice)
The Use of Rape as a Weapon of War in Burma’s Ethnic Areas (Burma Action in Ireland)