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In Myanmar, #MeToo Opens Up Conversation on Sexual Harassment

A woman prays at the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, Nov. 28, 2017, in Yangon, Myanmar. The #MeToo movement opens up the conversations on sexual harassment in Myanmar.
A woman prays at the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, Nov. 28, 2017, in Yangon, Myanmar. The #MeToo movement opens up the conversations on sexual harassment in Myanmar.

When Nandar was just seven years old she was sexually harassed.

A family friend whom she was told by her mother to call "Grandpa" would very often grab her between her legs and kiss her.

"Every time I saw him entering our house, I would find a way to hide."

When she told her mom she didn't like the way he touched her, her mother would dismiss Nandar's complaints and insist, "go with him, he loves you."

A few years later another incident occurred.

After climbing the stairs in her home to change out of her school uniform a man who was working on their farm in Shan State sat in his nearby room. Just as she was about to undress she saw him watching her and playing with his genitals.

"I don't know how I should react to such a thing," Nandar recounts. "At first, I thought he might stop if he saw me, but he did not. Worse than that, he kept playing with it harder with eyes widening."

This time when she reported what had happened to her, her mother was upset. With a disappointed tone she told her daughter, "you must be careful around him, or any man."

Victim blaming

Nandar is one of Myanmar's most well known feminists, at the young age of just 23. Already she has translated Adichie Chimamanda Ngozi 's speech 'We Should All be Feminists' into Burmese, spoken on countless panels and talk shows about women's rights and is now also hoping to speak more in schools.

Yet not once has she felt confident to speak publicly about her own personal trauma after experiencing sexual harassment at a young age.

But on a recent night in Yangon, Nandar decided to break that silence.

In a small art space speaking with the Center for Feminist Foreign Policy co-Founder Kristina Lunz, Nandar told a packed crowd, "The problem is not the woman or girls or the way they dress that causes violence or rape, it is the man who thinks it is okay to do so, it is the society that excuses men for doing so. Our culture protects perpetrators of sexual violence, not it's victims."

Gender-based violence has roots in how society brings up girls, believes Dr. Thet Su Htwe, who runs workshops across Myanmar teaching subjects from sexual and reproductive health to respectful relationships.

Key in her teachings is explaining the body's functions: "Just because women menstruate there are many "sayings" that say women's bodies are dirty and put women's inferior to men's bodies."

In the past, women in Myanmar were expected not to go to temples, or touch plants or animals or to wash their clothes when they were menstruating, as they were told that anything they touch would become contaminated.

At the heart of the victim blaming vicious cycle is the need to call out cultural attitudes towards women, says Dr. Thet Su Htwe.

In Myanmar the concept of hpon' is the belief that men have moral superiority and positive spirituality. Whereas women are linked to poor luck.

This "hpon" belief perpetuates men's superiority and their entitlement over women's bodies.

More sexual harassment cases reported

A record number of harassment and sexual assault cases were reported in Myanmar last year. Police recorded 508 assaults in 2017, compared with 429 in 2016 and rape against girls under 16 increased to 897.

The Ministry of Home Affairs advises women to wear "suitable" clothing to prevent rape. In a cartoon, a woman who is wearing shorts and a midriff top asks where to report a harassment case, to which the officer replies, "wear clothes that cover up."

When Dr. Thet Su Htwe saw the cartoon she was extremely disappointed: "the cartoon [commenting on a woman's dress] should not be highlighted as the main cause of sexual harassment."

To combat the root causes of violence against women, Dr. Thet Su Htwe believes education needs to start in the home and in school.

She's now dedicated her life trying to teach these classes through her program, StrongFlowers, in schools and community centers across Myanmar– crossing religious and cultural barriers.

"We can't raise boys and girls differently, or they will become adults with fixed gender roles. They need to respect and appreciate the differences."

Consent is still an absent word in many households when teaching boys how to behave.

Akhaya Women, a women's rights group based in Yangon, launched a campaign this year, "be better men" with a hashtag, encouraging men to change their Facebook profile picture frame to one that supported the campaign.

As smartphone use grows across Myanmar, Nandar hopes that the conversations sparked online by the #MeToo movement will seep into real life too.

"I think to move forward we need to see everyday examples such as male teachers being nurturing and caring and more female writers in Myanmar also sharing their stories," she told VOA after her speech.

Breaking barriers and continuing #MeToo conversation

A year ago Nandar raised the conversation of her childhood experience of sexual harassment with her mother.

It's through these conversations that Nandar has realized that her mother wasn't to blame. "For me it was very emotional, and for her it was deeply uncomfortable and full of regrets, but I was ready to talk about my trauma and discuss how my mother was just reacting to the social norms," says Nandar.

"Her father was an alcoholic and both emotionally and sexually abusive," states Nandar. "My grandma, who gave birth to my mother, was married to the man who raped her [so] growing up my mom was told that her mother is a "rakhel" which means she is a sexual pleasure for the man, and is not her wife."

Nandar told her mother she wanted to speak publicly about this incident. Her mother later watched a live recording of Nandar's speech on Facebook in her home in Shan State, some 600 kilometers away.

"She really believes in me, that I am opening the door to this issue. If I speak up, people will listen then they too will be willing to speak."