CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 24 August 2019

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Child rape causes crisis of conscience in Myanmar

John Zaw
 
On the morning of July 15, hundreds of demonstrators turned up at a district court in Naypyitaw, the remote capital city of Myanmar, to demand justice for a girl aged less than three-years-old who was raped.
 
It was the first court hearing since the incident at a private nursery school in May.
 
The accused rapist, the driver of the school’s supervisor, was first arrested in May. He was released soon after due to insufficient evidence but rearrested in July and charged with rape after police had examined CCTV footage from the school.
 
The case has generated widespread public interest and raised concern about the delayed arrest and shortcomings in the police inquiry.
 
A Facebook campaign was launched and went viral in June. Users in Myanmar and abroad changed their profile pictures to an image with a toddler and the words in English: Justice for Victoria, a pseudonym given to the girl.
 
The online campaign spilled over into street protests in Naypyitaw, Yangon, Mandalay, Pyay, Sagaing, Monywa and Taunggyi, with people calling for officials to deliver truth and justice for the girl, end child sex abuse and arrest the perpetrator.
 
The case has captured the public imagination in Myanmar, where the number of sexual assault cases against young children has been rising at an alarming rate.
 
Official statistics from the Ministry of Home Affairs show that children accounted for nearly 65 per cent of 1,583 sexual assaults in 2018. So far this year, children are involved in nearly 68 per cent of the 619 reported rape cases.
 
Nang Phyu Phyu Lin, an adviser at the Alliance for Gender Inclusion in the Peace Process, a coalition of women’s rights groups, said the public interest and demonstrations highlighted how people were longing for justice amid an apparent lack of accountability from the private school and improper handling of the case by police.
 
“The country has laws to protect children but the problem is the people who are practicing the laws. The case shows a deteriorating rule of law and (a lack of) safeguarding and protection for the children,” Lin said.
 
She said there were many unreported cases amid a rising number of child rape cases across the country, with those in conflict-torn regions most vulnerable.
 
“We need to consider psychosocial and counselling support for the perpetrators—just punishing rapists with jail terms is not a proper solution to tackling the child rape issue,” Lin said.
 
Myanmar’s penal code (Article 376) states that the punishment for rape ranges from 10 years to life, plus a fine. The maximum sentence for child rape is 20 years, while the death penalty has not been carried out in Myanmar for decades.
 
The government is now trying to include sex education in schools’ formal curriculum.
 
Lin said Myanmese society needed to change its victim blaming mindset of where women are regarded as having a lower status in the country’s deep-rooted culture.
 
Myint Swe, president of Ratana Metta, a non-government organisation which has child protection programmes, said it had focused on child protection awareness and better management of reported child rape cases in collaboration with UNICEF.
 
He said the number of cases of reported sexual abuse against children had risen, thanks to awareness among the public and the boom in the use of social media.
 
Most child rape cases happen in the Irrawaddy Delta and Magwe Division in central Myanmar.
 
 “We need to carry out more sex education at grassroots level,” Myint Swe said.
 
News of Victoria’s case spread on social media after her father told media that his daughter, then aged two years and 11 months, had returned home from her private school with injuries on May 16 and that doctors had told him they were the result of a rape.
 
Social media users have accused the police of reacting slowly and mishandling the case, underscoring a lack of trust in authorities in a country which is still emerging from decades-old military rule.
 
Aung San Suu Kyi’s government took power after a resounding victory at the 2015 elections but key institutions such as the police remain under military control and efforts to restore the rule of law have made slow progress.
 
Kyaw Nyein, a Yangon-based lawyer, said Victoria’s case had sparked national outrage and a call for justice.
 
“Delays in the police investigation could give time for the perpetrator to escape and they have raised concerns over whether they are protecting him,” Kyaw Nyein explained.
 
He said there would be much interest in how the case progresses and the ruling of the judges. UCAN