Women who have fled Burma to escape what they describe as systematic violence against women by the military have banded together to help other survivors.
Last week, their work was recognized by the Peter Gruber Foundation, which awarded them $200,000 and the 2005 International Women's Rights Prize. The award was given jointly to the Shan Women's Action Network and the Women's League of Burma.
Women from both of the groups traveled to New York and Washington to accept the award and to raise awareness around the globe about human rights violations under the Burmese military dictatorship.
"Unless there is genuine political reform, this suffering of women will not end," the league's Thin Thin Aung said in an interview with Women's eNews. "So that's what we ask for."
The women's league, based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, is an umbrella group for many smaller women's rights organizations in the area around Burma. Women in the league are trying to push United Nations member states--including Burma's neighbors India and China--to work toward political change.
The women did not meet with any U.N. delegates, who were at the start of the 60th session of the General Assembly. But they did meet with the U.S. State Department's Burma desk officer in Washington.
'License to Rape' Report
In 2002, women in this activist network issued “License to Rape”--a report whose findings were echoed by a subsequent State Department investigation—detailing over a five-year period 173 incidents of rape and sexual violence involving 625 girls and women in Shan, a state in northeastern Burma. Multiple women were raped in some incidents. An update to that report, conducted by the network and other Burmese women's groups, has documented another 188 rapes as an officially sanctioned “strategy of war” during the past three years.
Representatives from the Burmese embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to requests for comment.
In 2002, the Shan Women's Action Network and the Shan Human Rights Foundation jointly released "License to Rape" which detailed the incidents of rape since 1996, as part of the military's crackdown on ethnic dissidents.
Twenty-five percent of the rapes resulted in death and 61 percent were gang rapes, with women in some cases detained and raped repeatedly for up to four months, the report found. "There appears to be a concerted strategy by the Burmese army troops to rape Shan women as part of their anti-insurgency activities," the report said.
The report says that 83 percent of the rapes were committed by officers and that women who dared speak up were fined, detained, tortured or even killed.
Nang Hseng Noung of the Shan Women's Action Network said the report data came from interviews with survivors and that the rapes often happened when the military evicted villagers from their homes.
In response to the "License to Rape" report, the U.S. State Department sent investigators to Thailand in August of 2002 to collect first-hand accounts of women raped by the Burmese military. The investigators immediately found many stories from different locations that echoed the women's groups' conclusions and published a fact sheet about it in December 2002.
"All of the victims under 15 appeared severely traumatized by their experiences, were disturbed mentally and spoke in whispers, if at all," the fact sheet stated. "The older women sobbed violently as they recalled horrific incidents of their own rapes as well as brutal rapes, torture and execution of family members."
'Women Can't Go Anywhere'
Many women have fled the civil strife that embroils Burma and have settled in neighboring countries. Noung said women can't go anywhere to make their living and survive.
"While these women are hiding from the military, then they've been caught and they've been raped during that time," Noung said. "Or when the women went to fetch water, or the women have gone to work in the field, or on the return to their hiding places, that's when they got raped."
After U.N. Special Rapporteur Paolo Sergio Pinheiro began an international investigation in late 2002 and produced a report in mid-2003 of widespread human rights abuses including rape, the Burmese government refused to allow him to continue the investigation and has denied him access to the country since his last trip in November, 2003.
The military has repeatedly denied allegations of military crimes against minority populations. A representative of the Burma delegation told the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva in April 2004 that an investigation into the report's charges showed only five cases of actual rape.
Noung said the junta's denials are consistent. "When they meet with different governments, they say those reports are groundless, there is no evidence whatsoever and they have no proof. But for us, there's nothing more we can prove, we have already proven."
Burma has kept Aung San Suu Kyi, a leading democratic opposition leader and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, under house arrest since she and her supporters were attacked by government-affiliated forces in 2003. She had been detained numerous times over the past 15 years.
Although her party, the National League for Democracy, won 80 percent of parliamentary seats in 1990--the last elections held in Burma--the military junta has prevented the elected officials from meeting.
Women Band Together
Thin Thin Aung, who now lives in India, said that she and other Burmese women began to band together in exile when thousands fled the country after the military crackdown on dissidents in 1988.
Many initially joined student and ethnic organizations active along Burma's border in Thailand, India and Bangladesh. Later, however, women decided to focus on protecting female refugees and fighting to make women a respected part of the pro-democracy movement.
During the 1990s they began forming ethnic women's groups, about a dozen of which came together in 1999 to establish the Women's League of Burma. Each of the member ethnic groups has a few hundred members with one exception: the Karen Women's Organization, which has more than 30,000 members and is also much older than the others, having formed in 1949.
"We were able to form this Women's League of Burma umbrella group so we can raise the issue more strongly with our one voice," Aung said.
Of Burma's estimated 52 million people, a majority are ethnic Burmans, but Shans, Karens, Arakanese, Kachins, Chins, Mons and many other smaller indigenous ethnic groups form about 30 percent of the population.
While in Washington, the women met with the city's Burmese community to share information about their activities. They pushed male activists not to marginalize women's roles in the political movement.
"We ask them to accept that women's political participation is important to change the political and social (situation) in Burma," said Aung. "Women need to be at a decision-making level in all fields, so that women's perspective and women's protection will be put into the policy."