Sex­ual ha­rass­ment in the Myan­mar work­places

Few mech­a­nisms ex­ist to po­lice re­la­tion­ships be­tween bosses, em­ploy­ees and col­leagues.

The Myanmar Times - Weekend - - Weekend | Rights - HTIKE NANDA WIN

TUN Tun’s life took a turn when his fa­ther passed away. He was a teenager and had his mother and a younger sis­ter to look af­ter. He left his vil­lage and trav­elled to Yangon to make more money in the coun­try’s eco­nomic cap­i­tal. At this time, Tun Tun (not his real name) had no idea of what awaited him in the big city.

Tun Tun worked tire­lessly but hap­pily as a waiter. But one day, ev­ery­thing changed: he was sex­u­ally as­saulted by the owner of the restau­rant he was em­ployed in. Since then, his life has fallen apart. “I can’t look at peo­ples in the face. (…). I can no longer sleep. It’s sim­i­lar to be­ing chased by a dark shadow,” con­fesses Tun Tun.

Tun Tun’s self es­teem has been de­stroyed and it will take time be­fore he reen­gages with so­ci­ety. So far, he has not been able to put him­self for­ward for another job.

His sex­ual preda­tor has been ar­rested and charged un­der Myan­mar’s colo­nial-era sodomy law. But it took some time. Not that the in­ves­ti­ga­tion took long, but Tun Tun could not bring him­self to talk about the in­ci­dent to any­one.

“Af­ter I was as­saulted, I wanted to kill my­self,” he says. Ul­ti­mately, he thought that what hap­pened to him could hap­pen to oth­ers. “I was scared, ashamed, and dis­gusted, but I felt oth­ers could suf­fer the same fate as me if I didn’t tell my story.”

Open­ing up also en­abled him to seek sup­port within his fam­ily and his cir­cle of friends. That, he be­lieves, stopped him from end­ing his life.

Tun Tun’s story is an ex­treme case of sex­ual ha­rass­ment as work. But the dy­nam­ics at play are com­mon and wide­spread. His em­ployer forced him­self on him us­ing his power to threaten and si­lence him.

This is not just a Myan­mar prob­lem, but pre­cious lit­tle re­search has been done on the mat­ter here. No sur­veys on sex­ual ha­rass­ment in the work­place in Myan­mar have been done for now but plenty are abused. And it does not take a rape to de­stroy some­body’s life.

‘An ac­tress or noth­ing’ Ma Lin Latt (not her real name) suf­fered ha­rass­ment too. She worked as a reporter for the so­cialite sec­tion of a mag­a­zine. A fa­mous ac­tor had ac­cepted an in­ter­view in his house. On the day, he of­fered to con­duct it in his bed­room. Half­way through the in­ter­view, he made a pass at her and things got phys­i­cal. When the ac­tor gripped her hand, shiv­ers went down her spine. “We won’t in­ter­view for to­day,” he laughed. He told her he could make here a fa­mous ac­tress in ex­change of sex­ual favours. She ve­he­mently re­fused, he told her to take a day to think about his of­fer. “Do you want to be an ac­tress or noth­ing?” she re­mem­bers him say­ing.

She ran out with­out look­ing back. “That was the worst time of my life. I nar­rowly es­caped,” she says.

She re­ported her ag­gres­sion to her em­ployer, but the HR de­part­ment did noth­ing about it. She was told to avoid in­ter­view­ing the ac­tor in ques­tion and de­rided her al­le­ga­tions. In fact, peo­ple who knew about what had hap­pened started ques­tion­ing her in­ten­tions and asked whether she was not partly re­spon­si­ble for what had hap­pened. She had, the com­ments went, ac­cepted an in­vi­ta­tion to his house af­ter all.

She quit­ted not long af­ter. “I was men­tally scarred,” she says.

Busi­ness as usual Though the prob­lem is wide­spread, ac­tivists and lawyers say there is not much to pre­vent it in the cur­rent le­gal sys­tem. “Sex­ual ha­rass­ment is in ev­ery in­dus­try. The prob­lem here is that both men and women don’t re­alise what they are do­ing,” says Kelvin Lin a con­sul­tant who has been study­ing gen­der is­sues for years. Plenty of peo­ple just think they are crack­ing an inof­fen­sive joke when they are ef­fec­tively ha­rass­ing some­one ver­bally, he ex­plains.

For him, sex­ual ha­rass­ment is ev­ery­thing that takes aim at a per­son’s dig­nity, es­pe­cially if that per­pe­tra­tor en­joys a form of power over the vic­tim (think of an em­ployer, a teacher or a col­league). That in­cludes re­marks, at­ti­tude and be­hav­iour, un­so­licited pic­tures, videos, and let­ters, in­sults and, of course, phys­i­cal ag­gres­sion.

The Burmese crim­i­nal code has sec­tions to pro­tect the phys­i­cal in­tegrity and dig­nity of a per­son, but there is noth­ing on pre­ven­tions, and noth­ing spe­cific to the work place – a place some of us spend a lot of time in.

What con­sti­tute an abuse is poorly de­fined and there is no struc­tured re­port­ing sys­tem, says Daw Hla Hla Yi, a lawyer.

In­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions and com­pa­nies in­clude these sorts of poli­cies and def­i­ni­tion in their hand­books. They are not al­ways re­spected but at least they are there. There is no such thing in the ma­jor­ity of big Myan­mar com­pa­nies.

Con­se­quently, most peo­ple are just too scared to talk by fear of los­ing their jobs, she says. In turn, that strength­ens the feel­ing of im­punity of the per­pe­tra­tors.

But peer pres­sure is high, es­pe­cially for women who can be ac­cused of ly­ing or hav­ing pro­voked the per­pe­tra­tor – they of­ten are.

The over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of women in­ter­viewed for this ar­ti­cle had re­ceived sex­u­ally charged com­ments or re­marks. Plenty had been sent ex­plicit text mes­sages or in­de­cent pro­posal. Only a few had the courage to talk about the is­sue openly, let alone con­front their tor­men­tors. They would have a bad rep­u­ta­tion for do­ing so, they say.

Bad for peo­ple, bad for busi­ness Bosses have ev­ery­thing to win in im­ple­ment­ing good po­lices. Ac­cord­ing to in­ter­na­tional sur­veys, work­ers’ health af­fects the com­pa­nies re­sult. Un­happy work­ers take leave more of­ten. Anx­ious work­ers fare less well and com­pa­nies re­sult will be af­fected. Dis­tressed work­ers are more likely to re­sign and de­prive busi­ness of the know-how they ac­quired.

A ma­jor shift has yet to hap­pen in Myan­mar. That starts with show­ing re­spect for peo­ple “un­der” on the so­cial lad­der or the com­pany’s or­gan­i­gram, ac­knowl­edg­ing bad prac­tices and tack­ling them head on.

Look­ing away won’t make the prob­lem disappear, says Tun­tun, whose trauma is here to stay.

Trans­lat­ed­bykyaw Soe­htet,lwinbo Aung,winthaw­tar, and­khinet­haz­in­han

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