During the past week, the media spotlight has zoomed in heavily on rape. Everyone – from Salma Yaqoob to Laurie Penny – has weighed in on the subject. George Galloway sparked off the debate in the UK, with a video podcast describing the allegations against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange as “bad sexual etiquette.” The feverish speculation (“Did he use a condom every time?”) continues, with little in the way of resolutions.
What has seemingly been forgotten about, however, is a crisis of grave proportions on the other side of the globe. A crisis that features systemic violations of women’s bodily integrity as its currency. As John Hemming MP pointed out in his blog, the Assange saga may be entertaining for the media, but there is another situation that warrants our urgent attention, on a continual basis: (http://johnhemming.blogspot.co.uk/).
Two months ago, as Burmese Nobel Laureate Aung San Syu Kii toured the UK to great acclaim, her countrywoman Amina (not her real name) met her death in the most terrifying way possible. Having been assaulted and held down by soldiers, Amina was gang-raped in the village of Pandaung Pin (Nalwborna Para) in Maungdaw, Myanmar. Since 8th June 2012, dozens of girls and women – some as young as twelve and barely acquainted with menstruation – have suffered the same fate. As a 27-year-old man told Human Rights Watch in July 2012: “They tried to snatch the gold jewellery she had, her earrings and her nose ring, but she didn’t let them. Then they cut her ear lobe and her nostril with a knife to take it. When she tried to stop them, they tore her blouse open and then raped her. Twelve military and Nasaka [Myanmar’s border security force] entered two houses and they raped the women.”
Nobody knows the names or faces of these women, or the fact that they come from one of the most under-reported minorities in the world – the Rohingya.
The Rohingya constitute an ethnic and linguistic minority group, who profess Islam as their religion and are related to Chittagonian Bengalis. Based in Myanmar’s Northern Rakhine state, their number is estimated at 725,000 or about 80% of the total population of that area (UNHCR). They have faced many years of discrimination at the behest of state authorities, which led to thousands of refugees fleeing to Bangladesh during 1978 and 1991. The role of Bangladesh has come under scrutiny once again (due to the latest clashes), but it has adopted a closed border policy. In any case, Rohingya women get a rough deal in the existing refugee camps, where they are also likely to suffer from sexual violence.
Back in Myanmar, rape has been used as an age-old weapon of war. Many Rohingya men have been killed or put into concentration camps, handing security forces further opportunities to assault women from the inside out. This, in turn, enables them to expunge the men who are still alive. The upshot is the kind of damage which will reverberate for decades, long after the restricted-access cameras have stopped rolling and the bloggers have stopped blogging.
There are additional dimensions to the problems faced by Rohingya women and girls (as cited in the Arakan Project’s submission to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in October 2008). The social norms imposed on them by their own milieu have long since excluded them from decision-making on community matters. Divorced women and widows are ostracised, and once again, find themselves vulnerable to sexual violence. While arranged marriages operate with a reasonable degree of success, forced marriages are not uncommon, and are sometimes initiated for the purpose of trafficking.
The longer this crisis – and its attendant implications for women’s autonomy – lasts, the more intractable it seems. However, there are two measures that would get the ball rolling. Firstly, the international community should increase pressure on the Myanmar Government to repeal its 1982 Citizenship Law, as this has effectively rendered the Rohingya stateless. Any new legislation must comply with international human rights standards, including Article 9 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (which establishes equal citizenship rights for women). Secondly, further evidence needs to be collected, in the form of victims’ testimonies and presented at the UN Committee Against Torture. The late Professor Rhonda Copelon, a personal heroine of mine, was instrumental in re-characterising rape as a form of torture in international law. As Co-Founder of the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic at City University New York, she made tremendous strides for sexual violence victims in Haiti and Iraq, among others. It is high time the abuse of the Rohingya women was treated with the same urgency, regardless of their citizenship status in a country they have existed in since (at least) the 15th century.