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

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.

Khin Wutt Yee, 33, shows a scar, which she says were sustained from a broomstick beating by her abusive husband, in the village around Shwelaung, Ayeyarwady, Myanmar August 7, 2019. REUTERS/Ann Wang

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.

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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 programme 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.

As she spoke, her brother interrupted. “I don’t believe her,” he said. “Why do people always talk about women’s rights? What about men’s rights?”

Local police often ignore or play down complaints of domestic abuse, said Nu Nu Hlaing, the general secretary of the Tavoyan Women’s Union, which runs one of the country’s nine safe houses in the town.

Police at the two stations in Dawei declined to comment when contacted by Reuters.


During discussions between government officials and women’s rights activists drafting the Prevention of Violence Against Women Law, both men and women disputed whether rape within marriage should be a crime, several people present in the meetings said.

“They said this is one of our duties after marriage, whether we like it or not,” said Pansy Tun Thein, an activist on the drafting committee.

Some men questioned what the problem was with a man hitting his wife, said May Sabe Phyu, director of the Gender Equality Network, another member of the committee.

Three activists said the draft has been approved by the attorney-general’s office and would likely pass, but a date for debate in parliament has not been set. The attorney-general’s office did not return a request for comment from Reuters.

Under the current draft, they said, marital rape would finally be outlawed. The pending law would also include guarantees of services for survivors of domestic violence, such as legal and medical support and access to safe houses.

In the meantime, Nu Nu Aye and her baby daughter are sheltering at the home of two elderly women. “She can stay as long as she wants,” one of the women, Po Kyi, said. “We have deep sympathy for her, as we are women.”

(This story corrects name to Karen Human Rights Group in paragraph 18)

Reporting by Thu Thu Aung; Editing by Poppy McPherson and Alex Richardson