Yangon's women start to fight sexual harassment

Female-only buses are a start, but much more needs to be doneto put an end to an endemic problem

It happens regularly. A woman boards one of Yangon city's crowded buses to start her daily journey to work or school. A man stands behind her and all of a sudden she feels him pressing against her. She is too scared to tell him to stop and the man continues, despite being surrounded by many others on the overcrowded bus.

Close quarters: Myanmar has introduced women-only buses on five routes in Yangon after reports of poor service and regular incidents of sexual harassment on the city's crowded public transport.

When the bus gets to her stop, the woman quickly gets off. When she meets her friends later, she is too embarrassed to tell them what happened.

Sexual harassment on Yangon's public transport is a well-known problem and the regional government has announced it will introduce women-only buses later this year to protect commuting females. Women's rights activists welcomed the initiative, but emphasised it was not the solution to sexual harassment in the country.

"The women-only buses will run on five lines during rush hour, towards downtown Yangon in the morning and in the opposite direction in the evening," said Hla Aung, chairman of the Yangon Region Central Supervisory Committee for Motor Vehicles. The committee, better known by its Myanmar name, Ma Hta Tha, monitors the privately-owned bus lines operating in the city.

"Operating women-only buses was not the idea of Ma Hta Tha. An MP proposed the idea in parliament and the final decision is with the regional government," Hla Aung said. He declined to comment on how much sexual harassment there was on the buses, saying only the vehicle's owners would know what goes on.

Women-only transport is not unique to Myanmar. Other countries in the region operate similar transportation. Japan has women-only carriages on its trains, as does India, where the gang-rape of a female student on a public bus in 2012 caused a public outcry. In Thailand, women-only transport was reintroduced recently after a 13-year-old girl was raped and murdered on a train in July.

Women in Yangon put sexual harassment in the spotlight when they started the "whistle for help" campaign in 2012. Women handed out whistles to others boarding buses and told them to use them if a man assaulted them. The idea was a shrill whistle would deter the molester and alert other passengers that a woman was in trouble.

While the high rate of harassment on buses is not in doubt, no official numbers are available because most women do not report incidents to the police. The effect of the campaign launched by women two years ago is impossible to support with numbers, but those involved say positive results were achieved.

For many of the women involved in the campaign, it had been the first time they dared to speak publicly about an issue which affects their lives on a daily basis. It also increased public awareness of sexual harassment, even though many joked about the whistles.

"The people knew about the campaign, and even if they were joking about it or ridiculing it, they talked about it," said Htar Htar, a women's rights activist involved in the campaign.

The campaign eventually led to the introduction of women-only buses in Yangon. While some women were happy with the buses and felt safer, others criticised the introduction of women-only transport. "It puts the responsibility for their safety solely with the women themselves. If they don't ride these women-only buses, does that mean they like to be groped?" said a woman in Yangon who declined to give her name.

There are also practical arguments against the buses.

"The buses are good, but they would have to run everywhere and some women cannot take these buses when they are travelling with their family for example," said Nant Thazin Min, a coordinator at Colourful Girls, an organisation providing empowerment training for girls under 18.

And while the women-only buses might provide security for women, this does not stop sexual harassment elsewhere. "Sexual harassment does not take place only on public transport or on the street, but also in the office and at home. Some men think they can do whatever they want to women," Nant Thazin Min said.

Sexual harassment is a large problem in Myanmar and even riding in the front seat of a taxi or simply waking down the street exposes women to the threat of abuse. The root causes of these problems are the absence of sex education and the values of society, says Htar Htar, the director of Akhaya women. Her organisation is the only women's empowerment programme in Myanmar providing training to them about sexuality.

Engendering empowerment: Despite taking steps to improve women’s safety on public transport, activists say greater sex education is needed to change the sexist attitudes ingrained in Myanmar society.

In Myanmar society, like many others, the idea that men need sex and are unable to control their desires is very much ingrained.

"Instead of being angry at men, women often pity them because they are not able to control themselves," Htar Htar said.

"At the same time, women are shy and scared to speak up. Our society teaches women to be submissive and men to be brave."

Htar Htar knows all too well how difficult it is for women to respond when they are molested. She is a confident and assertive woman now, but it wasn't always that way.

"When I was a student I had to take a bus to the university. One day, a man came up behind me and started pushing against me. Even though there was space for me to move forward, I didn't. I didn't want him to do it, but I was scared and couldn't move. I froze," she said.

Now she teaches women empowerment but, unlike many similar courses, she does this by teaching women about sexuality. "I teach the women awareness about their own bodies, myths surrounding the female body and attitudes towards various sexual issues," she said.

One group of women who attended her training course started the whistle for help campaign in 2012. "They felt so empowered, they wanted to do something and they were the ones who came up with the campaign," Htar Htar said proudly.

Many women have expressed their concerns about sexual harassment in the safe environment of the organisation of Akhaya women. Some said they had been groped, whereas others said men had showed them their private parts in public. Some even said they had found traces of semen on their clothes after being brushed up against on public transport.

While most women feel stronger after courses at Akhaya, some men are not happy about their partner's newly acquired confidence and have forbidden their spouses from attending.

The training Akhaya offers to women is not yet available for men in Myanmar.

"Most of the teaching about sex for men comes from their friends, because there is no other form of education," Htar Htar said, and emphasised the need to educate men as well as women.

While more women are starting to speak up after being assaulted, the legal system in the country is against them, Htar Htar said. "We don't have a rule of law, but a rule of men," she said. Often when women press charges against someone who abused or assaulted them, the case will not make it to court.

Under Myanmar's penal code, sex offenders can receive prison terms of up to a year, but often the court favours men and offenders are not convicted. If a man is acquitted of the charges laid against him, the woman's reputation is damaged. This deters many women from pursuing a case in court.

When abused, the blame is often put on the woman, not the man who assaulted her. "Even many women will say the girl was wrong — they often blame it on the way a girl behaves or dresses. But wearing traditional dress is no guarantee against being abused, nor is wearing Western-style [clothes] an invitation for abuse," said Nant Thazin Min of Colourful Girls. n

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Writer: Yola Verbruggen