#AskForZarni campaign helps Yangon bars fight harassment

Anti-harassment signs at 7th Joint. Photo: Break the Silence: #AskforZarni
Anti-harassment signs at 7th Joint. Photo: Break the Silence: #AskforZarni

Popular Yangon reggae bar 7th Joint has become the city’s first bar to adopt a series of policies designed by survivors of sexual harassment and assault to make the city’s nightlife safer. The policies include encouraging bystanders to intervene when they witness unwanted sexual advances and training staff to respond to signals from guests who feel unsafe.

The new policies are the product of a campaign launched by Break the Silence: #AskForZarni – a group of survivors and allies who seek to combat sexual harassment by holding nightlife establishments and the public responsible for their prevention. The group formed online in early April as a private forum for people who wanted to discuss personal experiences of harassment.

“Every one of us had her own history of being harassed in nightlife, and not only in Yangon, not only locals. It’s a global problem we all share,” Carolin Hirsch, one of the group’s founders, told Coconuts.

Within a week, membership hit the hundreds, and members decided to channel their energy into action. They released a petition explaining to Yangon bar owners that guests have been forced to feel unsafe in their venues too often and for too long. They called on the owners to take action against harassment and impose consequences for perpetrators.

7th Joint’s quickness to adopt the petition’s recommendations marked a complete reversal of its previous approach to preventing harassment and assault, which included scolding patrons who engaged in any public displays of physical affection, even if they were consensual. The policy proved ineffective and confusing. In March, one patron publicly accused a guard at the bar of homophobia after being instructed to stop “hugging and dancing” with his male friend.

Explaining the shift toward a consent-centered approach, 7th Joint co-owner Mario Ebanks said: “We agree with what the campaign is about, and we feel that it is a proactive approach to stopping harassment, as well as providing an easy method of reporting any such incidents.”

As part of its commitment, 7th Joint posted signs on its walls earlier this month warning guests against making sexual advances without consent and encouraging victims to seek help from bystanders or from the bar’s staff.

The campaign has also taken inspiration from another anti-harassment tactic that gained viral fame after a bar in the UK instructed guests to mention the codeword “Angela” to its staff in order to alert them about another patron’s behavior without risking confrontation. At 7th Joint, guests can now “Ask for Zarni” to the same effect.

The final component of the bar’s commitment has been to pay for its staff to undergo bystander intervention training, provided by the Strong Flowers Sexual Education Service. The training covers sexuality; the definitions of consent, harassment, and assault; and relevant Myanmar laws. When they see harassment or are approached with the “Zarni” codeword, the staff are expected to be able to distract the perpetrator, extract and care for the victim, and directly tell the perpetrator to stop or leave the venue.

The organizers of Break the Silence: #AskForZarni say 7th Joint’s new stance is an important step toward holding perpetrators of harassment and assault accountable for behavior that is frequently dismissed or ignored. The challenge now is to bring more nightlife venues on board. Several have verbally committed to adopting the policies, including the widely popular rooftop bar Penthouse, but the posters have yet to go up, and the trainings have yet to begin.

“We’ve received a lot of support from people who clearly get it, which is great, but we also need support from people who might not fully realize why it’s important,” said Lindsey Hurtle, another co-founder of the group. “It takes people a long time to even notice that this is a problem.”

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