A more politically empowered Myanmar needs to face up to the growing challenge of violence against women and a long-held patriarchy that encourages impunity, writes Aye Thiri Kyaw.

While enjoying all the democratic changes that have been brought by a new government, Myanmar women still face significant challenges when it comes to the their roles and place in society.

Superficially it might seem that women in Myanmar are granted the same level of equality as their male counterparts. The perception of the high status of women is undermined by decades-old ideas and practices that encourage women to accept that men are the leaders and they are the followers. Society’s expectations and entrenched daily social roles require women to still perform their expected duties as daughters, wives, and mothers, and ask women to focus only on these roles.

But even worse than this is that today women in Myanmar confront acts of terrible violence, including murder that in some cases are left unpunished.

In the past two years, Myanmar has seen notably higher reported incidents of attacks on women. Take for example the case of Ma Aye Chan Myat Moe, who died on 27 August 2014 after being stabbed by a man who claimed to be her boyfriend. In the wake of the incident her family described the two as just friends. The case drew the attention of many in Yangon and was seen as a clear example of the very real threat faced by women and girls who decide to leave or refuse a relationship with a man.

Another incident that caught the public’s attention was an attack on a 20-year-old woman by her Facebook friend in downtown Yangon’s Taw Win Centre. The event was followed by similar kinds of attacks against women by their ex-boyfriends. A notable and shocking example was the acid attack against a woman by her ex-boyfriend in Thanbyuzayat, Myanmar. As a gruesome reminder of the attack, she boasts a vivid scar on one side of her face. She lost one eye and other parts of her body were severely damaged by the attack. She became the first woman to take legal action against her attacker in Myanmar.

In each of these three cases, the attackers tried to excuse their actions as revenge against women who dared to leave them. Unfortunately, these cases aren’t rare.

Violence against women is not a new phenomenon in Myanmar — particularly when you account for the treatment of women during decades of civil war. However, it is very difficult to compare the past and present situations of violence. First, there is no existing data on how many women face violence in Myanmar. Second, what evidence does exist largely focuses on ethnic minority women and their experiences of sexual violence in conflict.

In 2014 there was a qualitative study conducted by the Gender Equality Network and the Department of Social Welfare, Myanmar to explore violence against women in the general community. The research focuses on intimate partner violence, or abuse faced by women by their husbands. The report can be downloaded here. However, since democratic reform in 2010, media reports of violence against women have sky rocketed, largely in part to greater freedom of the press.

This is not just an issue impacting ordinary citizens. Two years ago, a Myanmar actor Min Oak Soe murdered a female employee for having an affair. The actor described Nu Nu Yin as his cousin, a claim refuted by her family, who reported no blood relationship between the two. He was given a life-sentence. But while his actions shocked many, the news that his life-sentence had been reduced to 10 years made a terrible event even worse. This example underscores the impunity men have, and the limitation of the laws in place to penalise those who harm women.

Although the sudden increase in reports of violence against women might be seen by many as an overwhelming concern, it can also be understood as men resisting their potential loss of power. The Myanmar’s women’s movement is stronger and more united than ever before. Myanmar women are more empowered, more educated, and have achieved many great things as individuals. Some men feel challenged by women’s growing position and power in relationships, in the family and in the society.

This perceived challenge to long-held patriarchal beliefs can lead to aggressive behaviour by men. For some, if they lose control of their relationship, they may prefer to destroy it. They use their power over women as a tool to bully women into remaining subjugated or mere objects. They want to demonstrate to the public that they are still in charge and hold control over women.

It is saddening to read and listen to these tragic stories that women face in a newly empowered Myanmar. Yet, despite all of this disappointment and dismay that women face, their sisters continue to strive for women’s rights, and build momentum to prevent violence against women in Myanmar. Prominent women’s networks such as the Gender Equality Network, Women’s Organizations Network and Alliance for Gender Inclusion in the Peace Process have been in at the frontlines of Myanmar’s women’s rights movement. Because of their hard work and contributions, the prevention of and protection against violence against women bill is expected to be reviewed by the Government soon. This collaboration between civil society groups and government is unprecedented.

Once the law passes, it will be important to raise awareness in the general community about the Bill. In order to take legal action, women need to know how to respond to violent incidents safely and effectively. Information about the law needs to be provided to informal sources where women seek help, such as 24-hour hotline numbers and shelters. Furthermore, the concept of positive masculinity and the image of what is it like to be a real man needs to be included in the media and educational curriculum to teach the young boys to respect their female counterparts.

Aye Thiri Kyaw researches gender, women rights, health, and violence against women. She is a co-author of Behind the silence: violence against women and their resilience in Myanmar, and recently co-authored a journal article in Gender and Society. She studied Health Social Science at Mahidol University, Thailand.