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Say “NO” to Violence and Leave No One Behind

Joint Op-ED by the Representatives of UNFPA and UN Women in Myanmar, co-chairs of the United Nations Country Team Gender Theme Group, to mark the beginning of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.

 

Over the past year, with the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, the world has become accustomed to a word seldom used before: “pandemic”.  The adjective pandemic is used to describe an event, usually a disease, occurring over a wide geographic area (such as multiple countries or continents) and typically affecting a significant proportion of the population.

As we prepare to mark the beginning of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, in a year during which the COVID19 crisis changed the world as we knew it, it is high time that we recognize that COVID19 is not the only pandemic that the word is currently facing and that away from the limelight of the media, away from the public eye, there is another, much older pandemic ongoing, a shadow pandemic, the pandemic of violence against women.

Violence against women and girls is indeed the most common human rights violation in the world and one which affects the largest proportion of the population.  Globally, one in three woman continues to be subjected to violence, physical violence, sexual violence, economic violence, emotional violence, at the hands of a man or several men, physically or virtually, at some point in her lifetime.  To put it in black and white numbers, this means that an estimated 1.3 billion women will be victims of violence in their lifetime.  Not a single country to date, no matter its development status, has managed to eradicate it, not even the countries which are the point of progress in terms of gender equality. 

This simply has to stop.  Just like the world is coming together to prevent and respond to the spread of the COVID19 crisis, so do we need an all of society effort to say no to violence and prevent and respond to the shadow pandemic of gender based violence. Together, we must act against gender inequality, which is the real root cause of violence against women and end the cycle of cultural tolerance, including false notions of masculinity, which sustain this scourge through generations

Myanmar is not immune to the shadow pandemic of gender-based violence.

While available data is limited, the Myanmar Demographic and Health Survey (2015-2016) showed that 21 per cent of ever-married women have experienced any form of intimate partner violence in their lifetime.  The Demographic and Health Survey also revealed that only 7.8 per cent of the 15-19 years old who experienced physical or sexual violence had sought help.

These numbers, while very real, do not reflect the larger picture as we know.  Due to social stigma and barriers in access to services, most survivors of gender based violence do not come forward and speak out openly, thus leaving the vast majority of cases unreported.

And the situation has worsened for women and girls over the past few months with the outbreak of the COVID19 crisis.

The restrictions in movement, loss of livelihoods, accompanied with the fear, tension and stress within the walls of one’s own home have led to additional emotional and physical violence and many women have found themselves trapped with their abusers with no one and nowhere to turn to. This very day, at this very moment, many women in Myanmar, living in townships under stay-at-home order are too afraid to go out, to ask for help or to even call helplines, suffering silently.

The COVID19 crisis has also exacerbated existing vulnerabilities, affecting particularly disadvantaged and marginalized groups of women, including women migrant women, women living in conflict affected areas, internally displaced women, sex workers, LGBTQI women, women living with HIV, homeless women and women with disabilities, and exposing them to increased risks of exploitation and abuse.

The increase in gender-based violence has further been compounded by the socio-economic effect of the COVID19 crisis which has disproportionally affected women as increasing evidence is demonstrating.

Together, we face an unprecedented crisis.  As we look to a future Myanmar free of COVID19, so must we look at a future Myanmar free of violence against women and girls.  By ensuring that the COVID-19 response and recovery efforts fully take into account the needs of women and girls and fully empower women and girls to be agents of change and development, Myanmar has a unique opportunity to build back better.

The Myanmar government recent efforts to engender the implementation of the Country Economic Relief Plan and to ensure that the future Myanmar Economic Recovery and Response Plan is fully engendered from the get-go are very encouraging steps in this direction.  As the programmatic response is being finalized and implemented, we must ensure that it includes specific measures for the protection of women and girls and to increase the accessibility and availability of services for survivors in all parts of Myanmar, irrespective of the political or security context.

The programmatic response must further be supported by a solid policy framework.  It is essential therefore that the new government which will be coming into office early next year prioritizes passing the Prevention of Violence against Women law which has been under development for many years already.  Myanmar is one of only two ASEAN country that has not yet passed legislation criminalizing domestic violence.  Adopting a version of the Prevention of Violence against Women law which meets international standards and is CEDAW compliant would be the most significant way to tackle the shadow pandemic of violence against women in Myanmar and to demonstrate to the women of Myanmar who have contributed so much to the COVID19 crisis response so far that their contributions and the value of their lives are fully recognized.

The United Nations remain firmly committed to supporting the Government of Myanmar, policy makers, civil society organizations, media, businesses and all of Myanmar’s women and girls to promote gender equality, end gender-based violence and respond to COVID-19 pandemic through a gender lens to ensure no-one is left behind. This in turn will ultimately support bringing us back on track towards Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) hampered by the pandemic, and will further accelerate the achievement of the Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan.

The promise of the Sustainable Development Goals and the MSDP—to leave no one behind—cannot be fulfilled without ending violence against women and girls.

Every women and girl has the right to live free from violence. We must act together and in solidarity to protect their rights, standing up and saying “NO” to Violence.