Sexual harassment in the Myanmar workplaces
Few mechanisms exist to police relationships between bosses, employees and colleagues.
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