#MeToo in Myanmar: How a Twitter Hashtag Amplifies Women’s Agency in a Formerly Isolated Country where Gender Inequality Reigns Supreme

Activist May Sabe Phyu and researchers Aye Thiri Kyaw and Stephanie Miedema discuss the #MeToo movement in Myanmar.

Myanmar, formerly Burma, is a country that remained closed off to the international community for decades before undergoing democratic reforms in 2010. Only in 2012 did the Myanmar government recognize International Women’s Day for the first time. Sexuality and violence against women are taboo topics. A nascent women’s rights movement is growing but still small. Social media use and smart phone penetration is rapidly increasing. Women are less likely to be online compared to men. Yet, despite these conditions, the #MeToo movement is gaining traction, and women are speaking out online (many for the first time) about their experiences of sexual assault and harassment.

Three experts—May Sabe Phyu, a leading Myanmar women’s rights activist, Aye Thiri Kyaw, a researcher and an active contributor to public debate about violence against women in Myanmar, and Stephanie Miedema, a social scientist who conducts research on gender inequality and violence against women— discussed the #MeToo movement in Myanmar and what it means for women’s equality and rights in this emerging country.  Questions were generated by the authors and answered through group discussion. Below is the transcript of this online conversation roundtable.

What is the situation of gender inequality and violence against women in Myanmar and what do we know so far?

May Sabe Phyu [MSP]:  The extent of violence against women and girls in Myanmar is largely unknown. Many women anecdotally report being vulnerable to violence and harassment. Sexual violence goes largely unreported because of stigma and fear. Gendered values and norms contribute to a broad social environment in which violence against women is both practiced and sanctioned, while simultaneously dismissed or normalized.

Gender inequality is pervasive in Myanmar. Some people argue that women and men are equal, but in reality, women hold much lower status in society compared to men. In Myanmar there is an ideology called hpon. Hpon says that men have spiritual and moral superiority over women. Men and masculinity are linked to good luck and positive spirituality. Women and femininity are conversely linked to poor luck. Hpon reinforces male dominance in society.

So, men are considered superior to women while women are devalued. When this is the context, women do not feel able to speak out about their experiences.

Aye Thiri Kyaw [ATK]: In this context, sexual violence and harassment is a big problem for women in Myanmar. Women get groped and sexually harassed in public places, especially on crowded city buses. No one discusses this problem. Women do not want to say anything because if they do, their reputation is at risk. Women are believed to be inferior, so people will blame the woman and believe that she is promiscuous. Society excuses men because of socially accepted beliefs of men’s superiority and entitlement over women’s bodies. Women talk about this with other women.

Stephanie Miedema [SM]: We know very little about the extent of sexual harassment in Myanmar. In 2014, the Gender Equality Network (GEN)— a leading women’s rights organization— published one of the first studies in the country to document women’s experiences of violence. We titled the study “Behind the Silence,” because the silence around sexual violence against women in Myanmar is deafening. In our research with female survivors of violence, we found that women internalized the trauma of abuse, often keeping their feelings to themselves. They did so because they felt it was their womanly duty to remain quiet and modest. Violence is taboo. They did not want to rock the boat.

Despite the silence around a taboo topic, the #MeToo movement has sparked conversation about women’s experiences of sexual violence in Myanmar.

MSP: There has been much discussion, positive and negative, about where the #MeToo campaign can take us. However, what it has already done is to show clearly that harassment is something that women across the world, in almost every walk of life, experience. And they are almost always silent about it.

Either the power of the perpetrator, or the fear of shame or ridicule or blame, causes women to fall silent. Movements like #MeToo, give many women— including those in Myanmar, who might never before have had the courage to speak up— the opportunity to do so. The campaign is widely accepted across the world. So, in Myanmar, it sends a strong signal to women that “you are not alone.” Many women willingly begin to share their experiences, too.

ATK: It is really interesting what we see now in Myanmar with #MeToo. Social media use is exploding in popularity in this country, and it is providing Myanmar women with a glimpse of what goes on elsewhere in the world. When the #MeToo campaign gained momentum, many Myanmar women also began to say “#MeToo” when sharing their stories on their Facebook pages. A lot of this conversation happens on social media. However, it is now also trickling into real life too.

Recently, a few teenage girls publicly denounced a popular and famous fortune teller*, saying that he had sexually abused them when they visited him a few years back. Their public declaration was a surprise to people, given the gender and age of the girls, and the social prominence of the fortune teller. But the girls felt empowered to tell people their story because of the #MeToo movement. It created an opportunity for them to speak out against men in power who sexually abuse women.

The ongoing #MeToo conversation in Myanmar has attracted widespread attention to sexual harassment in the workplace. A number of women have accused their former boss from Myanmar NGO industry of harassment and sexual assault. They have also taken action against him by reporting to the respected agencies for further investigation. This has been followed by a number of statements from women rights organizations whose campaign has focused on ending sexual harassment in the workplace

Given women’s obstacles to speaking out about violence, is the impact of #MeToo surprising?

MSP: I am not surprised. Women in Myanmar have suffered in silence. Now they understand that sexual violence is not their fault. They hear other women’s stories, and they realize that their stories will never be heard unless they speak out.

This progress is not just about #MeToo, but also the fruits of labor from women’s rights activists who have worked to raise awareness of sexual violence against women. It makes me happy to see so many women courageously open and willing to take part in #MeToo, and to speak out against sexual violence. We are building momentum to end violence against women in our country.

ATK: No, it is not surprising. The #MeToo movement has given confidence to Myanmar women. They’re using this as a platform to say, “I’ve suffered too. And it is not okay.”

The work of Myanmar women’s rights organizations, UN/INGOs and the women’s rights movement has come to play an important part in this regard. Although the women rights movement is still nascent in Myanmar, advocacy work has grown incredibly stronger in Myanmar since 2008.

SM: Absolutely. #MeToo in Myanmar is a great example of how globalized communication channels (like Twitter) can catalyze social norm change. Women hear other women’s stories. They realize how pervasive this issue is. They speak out more. And the blame starts to shift from survivors to perpetrators, where it belongs.

#MeToo cannot single-handedly end sexual violence against women in Myanmar. Like May Sabe Phyu says, there is a lot of hard work happening with women’s rights movements that is challenging the gender inequality in Myanmar society. But #MeToo appears to be part of a global information movement that creates space for such conversations to happen in the first place.

Image credit: Flickr

Aye Thiri Kyaw is a writer, researcher and activist, who actively contributes to public debates on sexual violence, domestic violence and abuse in Myanmar. Her publications have appeared in Gender & Society, New Mandela, Tea Circle Oxford and The Irrawaddy.  Aye Thiri’s research focuses on gender, women’s health, and violence against women.

May Sabe Phyu is a Kachin social worker and activist from Burma. She is the director of the Gender Equality Network and founded the Kachin Women’s Peace Network and the Kachin Peace Network to promote the rights of Kachin women. She spent the first part of her career as a social worker supporting HIV/AIDS victims.

Stephanie Spaid Miedema is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at Emory University, Atlanta, GA. Her academic research focuses on stigma, discrimination and violence experienced by women and sexual and gender minorities. Stephanie is published in top sociology and public health journals, including Gender & Society, Lancet Global Health and Social Science & Medicine.