These three perverted men illustrate why Yangon has a worsening sexual assault problem.
According to a report released by the Ministry of Home Affairs there were 1,405 rape case in Myanmar in 2017, an increase of 305 cases compared to 2016. Statistics like this, in addition to recent high profile cases, such as the rape and murder of Ma Shwe Yi Win and the subsequent backlash to perceived government and police inaction in pursuing justice for her, have caused many to believe that there is very little protection for women and girls in Myanmar.
After experiencing sexualized violence while walking around in Chinatown on Chinese New Year and receiving what basically amounts to a helpless shrug from the Latha Police Station when I went to report the incident, I came to understand how little support and justice Myanmar girls and women are given in the face of rape and assault.
On the night in question, my sister and I encountered three different perverts.
The first was a man standing in front of us in a crowd that had gathered to watch a lion dance troupe perform. The man, who looked to be in his 40s, had his camera out and was taking lots of pictures and videos. Since the dancing hadn’t started yet, it caught our attention and we glanced over. We realized that he was taking pictures and videos of a teenage girl standing across from us in the crowd. We wanted to stop him, but were afraid to confront him directly.
We were two young women out at night, and the vast majority of the people around us were men. We made some loud comments hoping to shame him into stopping or galvanize some of the men in the crowd into action, but even the ones who looked sympathetically at us chose not to intervene. In the end, all we were able to do was take a video of the man taking the video of the child and put it on Facebook with some commentary about how creepy this kind of behavior is.
Once the dancing started, the crowd was asked to move back so the dancers wouldn’t hit us accidentally as they performed their stunts and spins. As the crowd shuffled to create an appropriate distance between us and the stage, I felt a hand on my thigh and butt. At first, I assumed it was unintentional because it was very crowded, and I tried to reposition myself. But the hand kept touching me, even after the crowds stopped moving. It even started rubbing my thigh in circles. I reached down, grabbed one of his fingers, and twisted it as hard as I could. An old man standing near me, probably over 50 years old, yelled out and quickly moved away.
I hope I broke his finger and hurt him enough that he never even considers doing something like that again.
At this point, I felt that the night had been ruined. The behaviors of a few men had made my sister and me feel as if this public celebration less than two blocks from our home was a hostile space for women. We decided to leave, but even as we were leaving, we could not escape the inappropriate, frightening, and violating behavior of men.
As we started walking toward our house, I noticed that a man who was standing near us during the lion dance was walking behind us. Maybe I was being paranoid, but I told my sister to turn right. He turned right. Still, I thought maybe it is a coincidence, so we turned right again. He turned right again. We were almost sure he was following us. We turned right again, going almost in a full circle, and he was still behind us. He caught up to us and tried to talk to us. We walk faster. He continued to follow us. We ran into a crowd near a stage on Latha Street and finally lost him. But the whole way home, we kept looking back over our shoulders.
The next day, I went to the Latha Police Station to file a report on what happened. The police officers were polite and professional as they listened to me tell my story. When I finished and told them that I wanted to file a report, they were confused. They said: “If this was someone you knew, someone from the township, then we could do something. We could bring him in for questioning. But this happened during Chinese New Year, and it was very crowded. There is nothing we can do.”
I asked what I could have done differently to ensure that these men were brought to justice. They answered: “Call the police the next time this happens. Make a scene and grab and hold on to the person until we arrive if this happens next time.”
They gave me a phone number, but they did not file a report.
To summarize, the Latha police were told that a woman had been sexually harassed and assaulted and decided to do nothing with that information. Because there is no report, this incident will not be counted in the next Ministry of Home Affairs statistics.
Because there is no report, the Latha police will not see any data that might indicate that they need to change the way they police heavily attended events in the township.
Because there is no report, even if these men are caught in the future, there will be no evidence even hinting that they are repeat offenders.
Instead of a report, the police believe that the best course of action is to tell a woman to place herself in even more danger by grabbing and holding onto someone who was assaulting her.
If you look around Yangon, and most other parts of Myanmar, something you will notice is that the vast majority of people who are out at night are men. Myanmar people believe that it is not safe for women, so many families do not want or allow the women in their families to travel freely at night. They are scared that the women will be robbed, raped, murdered, or all three.
These fears are rooted in an unfortunate reality, and the general public’s response is to instill that fear in women and girls. In some ways it is logical. If a public space is dangerous, it is logical to tell girls and women not to venture out into it. But what kind of society are we creating in Myanmar if we tell half the population that they cannot be in a public space because we are not willing to stop or prosecute the criminals who harass and assault them?
Most families worry about their women, but they should worry about their men. Clearly, someone is doing the robbing, raping, and murdering, and if it is not the women, then it must be the men. Rather than keep women home at night out of fear, it would be much more effective to force men to stay at home until they can learn to control their actions.