Women and girls with disabilities face double discrimination in Myanmar

Friday, January 15, 2016 - 07:42

Article by Tawngmai N Khum - ActionAid Myanmar

 

Myanmar’s recent democratic trajectory has ushered in change on many social, political and economic frontiers. Marking this change has been the country’s watershed elections of November 2015, which have cemented the commitment to political reform. In spite of this change, Myanmar has fallen short of assuring persons with disabilities with the guarantee of equity and inclusion.

Women with disabilities continue to be more vulnerable to sexual violence. Furthermore, social stigmatization compounded by the challenges posed by disability makes access to justice through institutional mechanisms beyond the reach of many women who are differently-abled.

Census data from 2014 categorized persons with disabilities into four groups – visually impaired, hearing impaired, mobility impaired and those with mental disorders. 4.6 percent of the Country’s population (of 50 million) is differently-abled with 2.5 percent as visually impaired and 1.9 percent as physically disabled. A higher number of women are identified as disabled - 4.8 percent of women compared to 4.4 percent men are categorized as disabled. Furthermore, the three states with the highest number of persons with disabilities are Ayerwaddy (7.6%), Chin (7.4%) and Tanintharyi (7%). The lowest number of persons living with disabilities is documented in Nay Pyi Taw, the Country’s administrative capital. Persons with disabilities are more likely than non-disabled persons to be poor, uneducated, unemployed, unable to access public information and consequently uninformed of their rights.

This brief is based on focus group discussions with 25 women and highlights the double discrimination experienced by women who are differently abled and discusses their aggravated vulnerability to sexual and gender-based violence.

Social-Cultural Norms

Myanmar is a developing country. The social stigma attached to disability is deeply rooted in tradition. The belief that a person with disabilities is being punished for bad deeds committed by them in a past life is couched in the belief of “karma”. Disabled people are generally viewed as “unfortunate”, “pitiful”, “different”, “useless” and a burden for the family and society.

Education

Most women and girls with disabilities do not attend school. According to a national survey, 10 percent of non-disabled persons have never attended school. In contrast, 50 percent of children with disabilities are not enrolled in school. According to our focus group discussions, most persons with disabilities come from impoverished households and face financial difficulties. Few schools in rural areas are disability friendly – access to schools is not always easy, which impacts enrollment of persons with disabilities. Additionally, few teachers have undergone ‘special needs’ training and are unable to cater to the specific needs of children with disabilities. During our discussions in Pyapon (Ayerwaddy division), a teenager described the difficulties disabled children face in accessing school: “In my village they use a small boat to get to school. I really want to go to school but traveling by boat is dangerous for me especially during the rainy season.”

Livelihoodand poverty

Most women and girls with disabilities are homebound, help with household chores and are denied the chance to participate in community development and “in most cases, [they] participate only in village pagoda festivals”. According to our focus group interviews, men with disabilities make higher wages than women with disabilities; women with disabilities are often considered “hopeless”. According to a national disability survey a household with disabilities is seven times more likely to be classified as “extremely vulnerable” to violence, naturals disaster and economic shocks compared to a female-headed household. Whilst 5% of households have women with disabilities, these households comprise 10% of all poor households.

Sexual Violence

Women and girls with disabilities are at increased risk of gender-based violence in their homes, neighborhoods and communities. The Legal Clinic Myanmar (LCM) has documented 5 cases of rape against women with disabilities from January 2014 until May 2015 as reported to their legal aid centers (sponsored by ActionAid, the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the UN Trust Fund). Of the five cases reported, four survivors were mentally disabled and one was hearing impaired. According to the focus group interview, “if we meet any violence we can’t defend ourselves.” Due to the social stigma associated with disability, women and men with disability often face ostracization at the hands of their own families – they have to endure physical and verbal assault as family members allocate the onus of their disability to “karma”.

Accessto justice

There are a range of significant barriers that prevent women with disabilities from seeking access to justice and relevant services. Most services are not accessible or disability friendly. Moreover, when violence is meted out by a member of family or care-giver, access to justice is often denied. As is popular in most cases of violence, traditional mediation methods governed by community leaders are often adopted. Social and cultural norms pervade even the most formidable institutions of justice – stereotypical beliefs about the mental competency of women and girls with disabilities regarding their capacity to understand and report sexual violence often compromises the administration of justice. Women and girls with disabilities are often excluded from prevention programs, support services, and access to legal redress. As women from the focus group discussion remarked: “Gender-based violence information needs to reach the people who need it most, especially for us; if we don’t have this kind of information how can we fight violence?” According to a lawyer at the LCM, “most cases of violence where the survivor is a woman with disabilities are resolved at the village level with the village leader negotiating these cases. In most instances, the perpetrator pays the survivor compensation.” While the LCM has trained community level paralegals to document cases of violence and assist persons with disabilities report cases, they often confront challenges. Persons with disabilities need the additional support of their family members. Time limitations, the high cost of justice and the challenges of transportation often dissuade family members from pursuing justice through institutional mechanisms.

Suggestions

In Myanmar, no laws prohibit discrimination and violence against women and girls with disabilities. The absence of such laws is, specifically, felt in areas such as employment, access to education, health care and additional state services, including access to referral services. For this reason, it is crucial for the issue of sexual violence against disabled women to be recognized in new anti-violence against women legislation. Women with disabilities are more vulnerable and susceptible to violence than other women. The government of the Union of Myanmar ratified the UNCRPD (United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) on December 7, 2011, and on June 5, 2015, Myanmar’s Disability Law, comprised of 17 chapters, was enacted.  However, only two of the many articles comprising the 17 chapters referenced women with disabilities, highlighting the Disability Law’s lack of vivid focus, concern and coverage of disabled women.

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