Breaking the Silence: How We Can Empower Women to Address Violence in Myanmar

By Barbara Jones, philanthropist and civic leader

Barbara Jones, founding member of philanthropic and advocacy initiative Maverick Collective, reflects on the state of gender-based violence in Myanmar and her recent visit to the country with PSI.

Imagine feeling like you don’t own your body. You can’t speak up or come and go as you please. Your husband doesn’t like it when you’re out late at night. He gives you a bit of money to spend each week and controls all decisions about the family and finances. Some nights he yells loudly in your ear; others he grabs your arm so hard you can feel the bruises starting to form. It’s worse when he’s had a few drinks. He sometimes pulls your hair during sex and it is often not consensual.

There’s no point in mentioning it to anyone. The doctor at a local clinic encourages you to practice patience — it will get better with time, she says. She knows your husband and asks you to talk it through with him for the good of the community. The police don’t want to get involved in such a private matter and you just want the violence to stop, not press charges.

You feel that there must be something wrong with you, that you have done something to make him act this way. Everywhere you turn there is silence.

What motivated me to get involved in gender-based violence work and partner with global health nonprofit organization Population Services International (PSI) was meeting a survivor named Jane a few years ago in the Democratic Republic of Congo. What struck me most about Jane was the terror in her face. She would hardly communicate with anyone and kept her eyes fixed on the floor. Bearing witness to the results of such horrifying cases of abuse was really the spark that made me want to take action against the scourge of violence that plagues about one in three women worldwide.

Myanmar is at a turning point in its history and there is much cautious optimism about the future. Yet despite some progress, physical and emotional abuse remains part of the daily reality of so many Burmese women — and few people want to talk about it.

There are still significant gaps in the data about violence in Myanmar, and in particular intimate partner violence. It is difficult to truly know the size of the problem. What we do know is that survivors are often reluctant to speak out or seek support, and often do not know where to turn for help in their communities.

Research conducted by the advocacy group Gender Equality Network (GEN), along with PSI, provides snapshots of how violence affects women in their daily lives in many different forms. From this research, it’s clear many women are desperate for someone to talk to, someone to listen.

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Barbara Jones visiting the Sun Quality Health Clinic in Myanmar \ Photo Credit: Courtesy of PSI

When I visited PSI’s Sun Health Quality franchise clinics in Myanmar and talked to several local organizations, it became clear that health providers often perceive violence as normal, few people view it as an issue, and deeply held beliefs and norms reinforce a culture of victim-blaming, shame and suffering in silence.

At one of the clinics on the outskirts of Yangon, I met a doctor who is also a respected and well-known leader in the community. She smiled broadly as she described wanting to help women be healthier and earn an income. Out front, a group of women put blue nets on steel frames for local fishermen to use to catch oysters. “If we can solve violence as a social problem, they will be more happy and productive in their work,” she said.  She told us that physical and verbal abuse between husband and wife is considered normal and that “the status of a woman is always attached to a man.” She said that women need to feel financially secure, have someone they can talk to confidentially and know they can count on the law to protect them.

For the past 18 months, I’ve been working in partnership with PSI to work to address some of these critical issues. We started out by listening. We wanted to understand the issue from the perspective of women, survivors and healthcare providers, and then design a program that meets their needs. Armed with this knowledge, we are now training doctors to recognize the signs of abuse, provide a safe space for survivors and refer them for further counselling and support — including legal aid — at our partner organization Akhaya Women.

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Barbara Jones meeting with staff from Akhaya Women in Myanmar. \ Photo Credit: Courtesy of PSI

I was fortunate to be able to meet Akhaya’s pioneering and inspiring leader Daw Htar Htar. She started the organization to help women learn about and not be ashamed of their bodies or sexuality. Through my meetings with GEN and Akhaya, I learned how women are treated as property by their husbands, are often prevented from managing their own finances and barred from religious practices. They also suffer abuse outside the home, especially on public transport. Akhaya provides essential services including counselling for women to challenge gender stereotypes and speak up about incidents of abuse and help them bring gender equality into their family homes and communities.

This meeting further illuminated for me the enormity of the task of shifting cultural norms and behaviors, and breaking down age-old barriers and stigma — even for those who are working from within the culture, let alone someone like me on the outside.

Addressing gender-based violence is not something that can be accomplished overnight. But we have to start somewhere. We must harness the private health sector to reach out to GBV survivors and connect them with support services. It means providing safe spaces for women to talk about abuse confidentially. It means reaching women and men on social media and through outreach in their communities. And we have to continue to push for better laws and policies that impose tough consequences on the perpetrators.

Feeling safe and secure in your body, your home and your community should be fundamental rights. My partnership with PSI has the potential to play a role in empowering women to raise their voices against violence. In doing so, we can lift entire communities and nations.

Everyone deserves to live a life free from violence and abuse. Breaking the silence is a good place to start.

Photo Credit (banner): Chris James White