Each year, the world marks International Children’s Day in order to spread awareness about the need to improve the welfare of children. The day is also a reminder of the urgent work that remains to be done to ensure accountability for acts of sexual violence against minors.
But in Myanmar, which marks International Children’s Day on November 20, reports of violence against children are rising. Young girls are especially at risk of sexual violence, and due to social stigmas and a lack of understanding of the law, face many obstacles to justice.
In July 2019, the government of Myanmar enacted the Child Rights Law to protect the rights of children under 18 years of age. The new legislation was welcomed by groups including UNICEF, which noted Myanmar’s “commendable efforts to align national policies and regulatory frameworks with the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child that Myanmar ratified in 1991.”
The law prohibits all forms of violence against children and recognizes the special urgency of protecting children in conflict zones. This is particularly pressing, given that Myanmar’s international human rights record has been marred by decades of ongoing civil war that has had an outsize impact on the most vulnerable members of society, including children.
In addition to the Child Rights Law, the Myanmar government has made additional commitments to upholding and protecting the rights of children, including by signing the U.N. Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Both the CRC and CEDAW call for legislative, social and educational measures geared at protecting children from all forms of violence, including sexual abuse.
Nonetheless, despite the government’s various legal commitments, the Human Rights Foundation of Monland (HURFOM), a local civil society group, has noted a significant increase in the number of reports of abuse against children in Myanmar since January 2019. In particular, HURFOM noted an increase in the number of children being assaulted and raped by family members, and by individuals well-known in the community.
In one incident from February 2019, a father who repeatedly raped his 7-year-old daughter fled his township in Mon State after the school authorities and lawmakers intervened. The following month, a father was arrested for the attempted rape of his 17-year-old daughter in Kyar Inn Seik Kyi Township, Karen State. Then, in February of this year, a 13-year old girl became pregnant after her father raped her several times over the course of six months.
Moreover, weak rule of law and low levels of trust in Myanmar’s legal system complicate the pursuit of justice for those girls who come forward to report their abuse. There is a lack of awareness about the laws intended to protect children from sexual abuse, and even when applied in court, there remain serious shortcomings in implementing them effectively.
For this reason and others, many choose to remain silent. In a 2018 report, HURFOM concluded that traditional patriarchal social norms, and the accompanying stigma surrounding sexual violence, lead many victims to stay silent. The testimonies of survivors are also undermined by embedded cultural assumptions suggesting that young victims are to blame for putting themselves in unsafe situations, or that they are troublemakers looking for financial compensation. This naturally encourages them to remain silent, for fear that they will not be taken seriously.
Some victims also face pressure to keep quiet in order to preserve the peace in their communities, particularly in remote regions where customary law often takes precedence over the penal code. Third-party stakeholders such as village tract administrators and armed group leaders frequently attempt to negotiate settlements between victims and perpetrators. This stems both from the lack of trust in the judiciary and the slow, costly process of pursuing justice via that route. However, this comes at the cost of any justice for victims.
In addition, the current mechanisms meant to enforce child protection do not go far enough to condemn violence against children, specifically sexual violence. In a 2017 report, the Women’s League of Burma stated that while various other provisions of the CRC are legislated in the Child Rights Law, there is very little that legislates the protection of children from sexual abuse. The closest relevant prohibitions are those set out in section 66 of the law, which calls for a maximum two-year sentence with a possible fine for anyone “who knowingly neglects that a girl under 16 within their guardianship is engaging in prostitution, willfully mistreating a child, or using the child in pornography.” These flaws and gaps in the legislation naturally hinder the protection of young children.
Perhaps the most well-known recent case in Myanmar was that of a three-year-old toddler who was allegedly raped at her nursery in Naypyidaw in May 2019. The case attracted widespread attention due to the police’s subsequent mishandling of the case, which involved the unlawful disclosure of the victim’s name and the alleged scapegoating of the school supervisor’s driver. These prompted country-wide protests demanding “Justice for Victoria.”
Unfortunately, Myanmar still has a long way to go in preserving and protecting the rights of children. It is important to consult with civil society organizations who are working on the ground to support families and victims. All children deserve to be protected and cared for unconditionally by their loved ones, and when these support systems fail them, they must have access to strong legal mechanisms that ensure justice – with dignity – is done.
Nai Aue Mon is the program director of the Human Rights Foundation of Monland (HURFOM) and a management board member of the Network for Human Rights Documentation – Burma (ND-Burma).
Maggi Quadrini works on human rights for community-based organizations on various projects along the Thailand-Myanmar border.