Myanmar has endured more than five decades of military dictatorship, beginning in 1948 when the country gained independence from British rule. The nation temporarily transitioned to civilian leadership in 2011. Under the civilian rule, repression loosened. More women were elected to the parliament in the last elections than in the prior election.
Extreme in their chauvinistic ideology, police and soldiers believe that coming into contact with women’s clothing will weaken them. Demonstrators, 60 percent or more of them women, use this misogynistic narrative to their advantage by carrying htamein during protests and by hanging them across streets to cordon off areas from men too offended to walk beneath them.
Incidents documented on social media show police manhandling women protesters, including pulling off their garments in front of cameras. Nandar is quick to call this out as sexual harassment: “There has to be a female police, at least, to arrest a female protester. That has to be a basic thing to do as a government.”
May Sabe Phyu, head of the Gender Equality Network (GEN), heads a group of over 100 NGOs that seek justice and equality for women and girls. I asked her how GEN got started and how it is advancing women’s rights.
We chose to build up a research base, to listen to our young women leaders, to support opportunities for training and connecting, gaining strength together,” Phyu said. “Slowly we felt a turn in the tide, and we saw small steps towards progress.”
A key goal has been the passage of the Prevention and Protection of Violence Against Women Law (PoVAW).
“Violence against women in Myanmar continues to be a fierce and persistent threat to women’s human rights and a huge impediment to women’s leadership,” Phyu continued. “Violations occur within intimate partner relationships, in public spaces at the hands of strangers, increasingly in conflict-affected communities, and now also against the peaceful protesters who are gathering nationwide to reject this coup.”
The bill has been stalled since January 2020. The dictatorship now prevents it from moving forward, leaving women vulnerable to state-sponsored violence.
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