Activist groups in Myanmar say more needs to be done to protect children from sexual abuse after the number of child rape cases jumped last year. (Photo from Unsplash)
When the parents of a 2-year-old left the girl with her grandparents to forage for firewood on the outskirts of their village near Mandalay city a few days before Chinese New Year, they never imagined she was in danger.
However they returned to find she was no longer there. There was no response when they called her name, and no clues as to where she had wandered.
Not, that is, until her bruised body was found discarded like a rag doll on a banana plantation outside the village.
Hope fluttered when she appeared to be conscious and still breathing, if only barely; it was kindled on the rush to hospital; and extinguished when the doctors informed them that their darling girl, who had been raped, was dead.
Just over a month later, a district court in Pyin-Oo-Lwin township sentenced her 23-year-old rapist to death in the hope that a sentence of this magnitude would deter others from following in his footsteps.
The case seized the public imagination in Myanmar as the number of sexual assault cases against young children has been rising at an alarming rate and mothers fret about how to protect their offspring from unknown intruders lurking in their midst.
Official statistics show the number of rape cases reported in 2017 stood at 1,400, including a massive 900 against children. This compares to 1,300 in 2016, with 670 featuring child victims. The Ministry of Home Affairs released the figures in a report in February.
Worse yet, some of the cases where children were targeted involved Buddhist monks. One that occurred at a monastery in Mandalay in 2015 saw a 4-year-old girl allegedly raped by a monk; in another case in Kalaywa township in 2016, the female victim had barely turned 10.
Hla Hla Yee, director of Myanmar's Legal Clinic, which dispenses free legal aid and various forms of social protection to women and girls, said the government data is useful but hardly representative as the vast majority of sexual molestation cases and rapes are believed to go unreported.
She said the organization has received 92 requests for legal aid so far and the lion's share, or 72 of the cases involve the rape of a child under 16.
The first four months of this year have not settled anyone's nerves however as the number of requests has been growing, she said, led by the families of victims in the Irrawaddy Delta and Yangon.
She raised some egregious cases involving children with severe physical or mental disabilities. She said in most cases of child rape the culprit is later found to be either the victim's relative or neighbor.
"The government, parliament and civil society need to collaborate to find the root causes and come up with ways to reduce the number of child rapes while thinking about suitable punishments and how to properly rehabilitate victims," she told ucanews.com.
One measure that may or may not influence this is the government's much-touted plans to open day-care centers nationwide.
The Good Shepherds
Sister Lucy Aung Sian from the congregation of Good Shepherd Sisters said she tries to help by raising awareness of child's rights and how to obtain evidence that can lead to a guilty verdict.
"Most people are surprised when I talk so openly about sexuality, as it is the first time they have heard such things discussed," she said.
"But there is a fitting time to talk about such things and people need to know what they can do to try and prevent a rape from happening."
She said the majority of people in Myanmar are still quite naive about certain aspects of sexuality, which she blames on an education system that is very conservative and still treats sex as a taboo subject.
The lack of sex education at school potentially makes it easier for rapists to prey on their victims, some critics argue.
Win Tun Kyi, director of the national office of Karuna (Caritas) Myanmar Social Solidarity in Yangon, said handing rapists the death sentence is only one step among many that need to be taken.
"Among these are, prevention is definitely better than 'cure'," Win Tun Kyi told ucanews.com. "Personally I advocate spreading awareness and providing sex education for parents, peer groups and at a community level."
Eye for an eye
Two of the highest-profile cases this year — one involving the 2-year-old and the second a 12-year-old girl who was raped and murdered in Kachin State that same month — prompted campaigners to call on the government to impose the death sentence.
About 100 activists, lawyers, political parties and CSOs demonstrated in favor of mandating capital punishment for child rapists, according to local media reports.
Myanmar's penal code (Article 376) states that the punishment for a rape charge ranges from 10 years to a life sentence, plus a fine. The maximum sentence for child rape is 20 years.
However in Myanmar, the death penalty has not been carried out for decades.
Susanna Hla Hla Soe, secretary of the Women and Children's rights committee of the Upper House, said capital punishment was not really considered an effective solution but it may be one that appeases the families of the victims.
She said rapists used to get lighter sentences, averaging two or three years, which compelled social activists to take a stand and pressure authorities into considering reforming or at least tightening up the law.
Last year a parliamentary committee heard 25 cases and provided the victims with legal assistance, added the ethnic-Karen and Christian MP.
"If people have any complaints about how their cases are being dealt with, they can lodge a complaint with the committee and then we can step in as a de facto check-and-balance mechanism to help regulate judicial affairs," she said.
"We have a lot of work to do including raising awareness of women's rights, children's rights, educating young people about morality, sex education, and so forth," she added.