Trivia: How many cases of rape have been punished by Burmese military tribunals?
Answer: This is a trick question. Although rape is officially a crime according to Burmese military law, no cases of rape have been punished through military tribunals. This is indicative of how deep a culture of impunity exists in the Burmese military.
When it comes to international social justice and development, women’s issues – regarding women’s safety, health, and rights – tend to be discussed and dealt with separately from the “main” issue or conflict. However, this approach doesn’t take into account the economic, social, and political value women have that is vital to their society and its future development. The issue of a rape as a weapon of war in Burma is a perfect example of how women’s issues do have a huge affect on their society as a whole.
The military regime employs a strategy of weakening ethnic minority armies by depriving them of the resources they need by destroying the communities that could supply these resources. Because women are integral to these communities, harming them, especially in such a violent and psychologically damaging way, destabilizes their communities. Because the rape is so widespread, the psychological impact, on individuals, families, and communities, must be very great, especially because the social stigma surrounding rape that would prevent them from receiving support or justice is so great.
The recent report from the Karen Women Organization shows how traditional gender roles have been forced to adapt so that women take a more prominent role in community leadership. The report found that because male Karen village heads have been targeted by the military and executed, women have been taking on a traditionally male role with the assumption that the Burmese military would be less likely to execute female village heads. Instead, these brave women have faced horrific abuses, including crucifixion, torture, beheadings, and rape. Because women are more vulnerable to sexual assault, government troops have taken advantage of this to use rape as a means of intimidation. These acts aren’t simply attacks on women – they are attacks on the stability of the entire community – but they take advantage of an existing culture of gender inequality and impunity towards sexual assault.
The solution to the use of rape as a weapon of war can’t lie solely in protecting these women from rape. Women must be provided with the tools to build themselves up, economically and politically, in order to protect themselves and help to reconstruct their societies. Take the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN), an organization dedicated to gender equality and justice for women from the Shan ethnic group in Burma. SWAN provides refugees with education and health services, but specifically for women, they provide empowerment programs that include training in leadership skills, peace building, and literacy, as well as a crisis support program for women who have been raped, and income generation programs. SWAN is providing women with the tools to first recover from their experiences and then return to their communities with the skills to rebuild. The issues women face can’t be separated from the issues of the community as whole because women must be included in the solution to recover, combat gender inequality, receive justice, and build a stronger society.