The number of rape cases, including those involving children, has been on the rise in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state for the past few years amid armed conflict and ongoing political instability in the region, according to local aid groups.
Six child rape cases were reported in 2018, five in 2019, 20 in 2020, and five in the first half of 2021, according to Legal Clinic Myanmar, High Court lawyer Mya Thuzar from the Rakhine state branch office of the Legal Clinic Myanmar in Sittwe told RFA on Thursday.
“More and more child rapes are occurring, and it is very troubling for children,” said Oo Khin Thein of the Sittwe-based Rakhine Youth New Generation Network. “We are worried because we are seeing a lot of fighting and political instability and, in the midst of it all, the complications of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Officials from the Legal Clinic Myanmar and the Rakhine Pioneer Women’s Group, both based in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe, said military conflicts, political instability, and insecurity in refugee camps housing tens of thousands of displaced people have been factors in the growing number of sexual assaults involving women and children.
Civil society groups have expressed concern about the lack of security in the internally displaced persons (IDP) camps amid the ongoing political unrest. Children are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault because they can be easily approached by adults in the camps, Mya Thuzar said.
A lack of law enforcement in some areas of the state and a belief among some culprits that they will not be arrested if caught are other factors at play in the rise of numbers of sexual assaults, she said.
“The main reason for these rape cases is due to the lack of respect for children’s rights,” Mya Thuzar said.
“Another is that children are easier to approach, and some people are not aware of the provisions of the law,” she said. “Furthermore, there are no [legal] protection mechanisms for children to prevent this from happening.”
The minors who were sexually assaulted from 2017 onwards were all between the ages of 18 and 12, and those suspected of assaulting them have never been caught, she said. There were six cases in 2020 in which the suspects fled to avoid arrest.
Thein Kyaw Mya, director of the Pee Pin Yin IDP camp in Mrauk-U township, told RFA that a nine-year-old girl was raped there on June 4.
“The little girl was asleep with another girl in our camp,” he said. “The father of the girl arrived at about 10 o'clock and took the visiting girl outside, but not his daughter. He offered her snacks and pocket money, and then took her to a field where he raped her.”
Soldiers from the rebel Arakan Army arrested the man the following evening, though it is not yet known what action will be taken against him, Thein Kyaw Mya said.
In May a young ethnic Khami woman sheltering at the Gandhari IDP camp in Buthidaung township was reportedly raped when she and her mother went to clear an area of forest for farming about a mile west of the camp, Development Media Group (DMG) reported.
Authorities later detained Futu Ali, 54, from Ywamagonnar village at the Taungbazar police station, DMG said.
More than 40,000 women displaced by armed conflict between the AA and Myanmar military since 2018 still live in IDP camps in Rakhine state, according to the Rakhine Ethnics Congress, an NGO based in Sittwe that tallies IDPs.
Calls for action
The Arakanese Women’s Association-USA issued a statement on June 9, calling for the Rakhine People’s Authority — set up by the AA as a quasi-government in charge of judicial and administrative functions in the state — to take action against the perpetrators of the rape cases in Mrauk-U and Buthidaung townships.
The group said it was providing aid to the families of the two people who were allegedly assaulted.
Nearly 30 women had been raped in the state between this January and June, according to the Rakhaing Women’s Initiative Organization (RWIO), a community group.
RWIO chairwoman Saw San Nyein Thu said authorities must arrest perpetrators quickly and take action to prevent further sexual assaults.
“We are very worried about what might happen next,” she said. “The main thing is for the authorities to take really serious action against the perpetrators in a timely manner.”
“In addition, we, as a society, should all look after our women and act together so that perpetrators can be brought to justice,” Saw San Nyein Thu added. “There is a need for more public education to end violence against women.”
Rakhine State Attorney General Hla Thein told RFA that authorities are investigating sexual assault cases that have been submitted to the court in accordance with the law and that perpetrators are being charged.
“If we find child rapists, we prosecute them in accordance with the law,” he said. “Same thing with ordinary rape cases. The courts are meting out effective sentences.”
The legal community is working together with the state and various law enforcement agencies to ensure the effective prosecution of cases of violence against women, he said.
Myanmar government statistics indicate there were 1,405 total rape cases in the country in 2017, up from 1,110 the year before, though Legal Clinic Myanmar director Hla Hla Yee suggested in an AFP report in March that the figures could be much higher in the country of 54 million people.
About two-thirds of the crimes were committed against children, the report said.
Civil society groups say that a significant number of sexual assaults likely are unreported, so that actual figures are much higher.
The rape of a woman outside of marriage carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in jail, while the rape of a girl under the age of 12 carries a sentence of 20 years to life in prison, though few offenders serve full terms, Hla Hla Yee told AFP.
The Myanmar parliament issued an updated draft of the National Prevention and Protection of Violence Against Women law in January after years of back-and-forth over the legislation.
The draft is still pending parliamentary adoption along with revisions to the Constitution and Penal Code recommended by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), according to a report issued to the U.N. Security Council in March.
CEDAW is the body of independent experts that monitors the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1979.
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