Getting a bus in the city of Rangoon (or Yangon as it was renamed by the military junta in 1989) for a woman traveling solo is a challenge. As my face is similar to the face of locals, everybody was talking to me in Burmese and I don’t know which bus I should take, as the number is also written using the Myanmar alphabet. In peak hour, the travelers are mostly men and I need to fight my way through. Suddenly I feel something brushing against my posterior… I look back and see a group of men, one of them smiling. I was so upset, this is harassment!
“What do you want, Mister? I’ll call the police if you do that again.” I shout in English. The faces in the crowd alter as they realized I am not Burmese and they quickly disperse.
A bus conductor approaches me, asking in broken English where I am going and pointed me to one of the weather-beaten buses that looked like what Jakarta had in the 1970s. So off I went to my meeting.
“These are for you,” said Daw Htar while handing me a green whistle and a couple of small purple stickers printed with Whistle for Help. “This is our campaign to help woman when they are sexually or physically harassed on the bus and to call others for help,” the lady continued. Daw Htar herself is a survivor of the streets of Myanmar and has witnessed a lot of harassment in crowded city buses since she was little. The experience is not exclusive but it is widespread, suffered also by young Burmese women, their friends and sisters, sometimes from the tender age of five years old.
What was shocking to learn from Daw Htar was that even when accompanied by a mother, a daughter could be molested in public when the mother’s eyes were not watching. Due to this reason, Daw Htar and her friends are initiating the whistle campaign, to make the streets of Rangoon (or Yangon) safer for her children.
The Whistle for Help campaign is supported by more than 150 volunteers at bus stations during the morning peak hour, around 8 a.m. The volunteers are distributing leaflets and whistles, encouraging people to blow the whistle when they are experiencing or witnessing harassment. The goal is to stop the process and protect the victim. People are requested not to use the whistle in a playful way, just to blow when necessary.
An email address is being given out with a campaign information leaflet and sticker so that people can email their experiences as a victim or when they witness accounts of sexual harassment in the street. Daw Htar said that they received over 100 reports in the first month of the campaign, and they keep coming. She hopes that one day these stories can be transformed to a more formal report so that they can reach a wider number of readers and awaken Myanmar to sexual harassment, which should not be something acceptable in public buses.
Similar to Indonesia, Myanmar schools do not teach sexual education or gender equality. The country’s belief system is Theravada Buddhism, where men are perceived to have glorious lights surrounding their head, as Buddha is often portrayed as a man. Due to this, men are perceived to be on a higher level in society, making the abuse of women in and out of the house tolerated. According to the Social Institutions & Gender Index 2012, Myanmar has no specific law prohibiting domestic violence. The country’s Criminal Code prohibits sexual harassment with a fine or a maximum of one year’s imprisonment for the violator.
Moreover, women are often portrayed in stories as one of the temptations in the journey to holiness for monks. This creates a situation for women that it is their fault every time sexual harassment happens to them. Due to this perspective, most Burmese women are shy and too ashamed to take action especially when they feel society will not support them.
Having said this, the challenge facing the Whistle for Help campaign is to break down barriers in the mind. The question is whether a newly transformed Myanmar is able to do it. The answer for most is likely yes, it will, however not instantly. Daw Htar stated that after the reforms, the people of Myanmar were allowed to campaign openly, as long as it was peaceful and had a permit. The government is now more willing to support initiatives and demands from the people. For example, the government contemplated allocating women-only buses but the idea was opposed as it will create segmentation and does not actually face the real problem of inequality and lack of protection.
“The reason we campaigning is not to oppose men, we oppose the action of sexual harassment. In a good society, both men and women should feel safe everywhere,” stated Daw Htar in a determined voice.
She continued by congratulating Indonesia’s successful reform in bringing the country to democracy. Daw Htar uttered her willingness to learn from Indonesia and its empowerment of women. In return, I thank her for the compliment yet sheepishly admit that my country has not yet been able to protect its women on public transportation and even government officials irresponsibly put blame on women’s attire. Daw Htar smiled and said, “Well then, we should learn together how to stop harassment.” I nodded, waved goodbye and thought as I walked, that the green whistle in my hand might be useful in Jakarta, too.
The writer is a graduate of the University of Indonesia and works as an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
Published in Jakarta Post, 2 June 2012
First photo from http://www.flickr.com/photos/meckleychina/2930063033/
Second photo is by @fitbintim
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Photo from Myanmar Times