Waiting to Exhale

Tuesday, December 4, 2018 - 09:36

Win Win is 24 years old, a mother of two daughters. She dropped out of school at the age of 11 and she has been working at various factories as a dressmaker ever since. She earns less than three dollars a day. She lives in a township in Yangon that has increasingly become a hub for manufacturing. Coupled with this rapid change the town has also become known for issues of poor health and sanitation, weak public services, unsafe living conditions, increases in incidents of sexual and gender-based violence, and growing crime rates.

One day Win Win and her neighbours were preparing to decorate for the upcoming traditional festival Thadingyut, which is held on the full moon day of the Myanmar lunar month. While busy decorating, one of their neighbours was intoxicated and started to verbally harass Win Win. She warned the man to stop repeatedly, but he continued insistently. Win Win’s friends also tried to intervene but this escalated into a big argument, where they had to resort to using a wooden stick to fend away the drunk man.

The next day, the man came to Win Win while she was showering. In Myanmar’s slums, people typically bathe outdoors with big buckets because of a lack of appropriate facilities. The man pulled her hair and physically assaulted her, beating her with a wooden stick. Win Win tried to fight back but was brutally injured.

Her neighbours fortunately intervened and ended the fight, however a few days later, the man sued Win Win for using a “weapon” in their altercation. He was referring to Win Win’s use of the wooden stick on the first day. Since sticks are considered as a weapon according to the law, Win Win received a bailable charge on remand (to be on remand means that you can be at home before the hearing) for a hearing in the courtroom.

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Win Win requested guidance from Daw Mway Mway Than, a paralegal. She is one of more than 50 paralegals trained by ActionAid Myanmar, supported by My Justice, a programme funded by the European Union and implemented by British council. Paralegals are members of the community instructed in basic legal matters, as well as human rights, facilitation skills, and issues of gender of gender-based violence. Daw Than managed to help Win Win by encouraging her to take legal action towards the man that attacked her. Despite her doubts and low-paid job, she felt empowered to proceed with hiring a lawyer. Subsequently, Daw Than sought support from ActionAid to help Win Win.

In the course of the trial, Win Win joined a number of awareness activities given by ActionAid Myanmar. The activities involved learning about customary laws and gender-based violence (GBV). The attendants were equipped with knowledge of equality, GBV, and endemic social attitudes surrounding gender and patriarchal power structures. By improving their knowledge on these issues, the programme helps them address gender inequality in their own communities; increases understanding of why and how women are vulnerable; and helps communities recognise how both men and women can contribute to preventing and responding to GBV. The training enabled Win Win to gain a better understanding of the laws related to gender and women’s rights in Myanmar.

To face the court, Win Win went through many further challenges. She needed to take leave from work whenever the hearing was happening, but this was difficult for her and it resulted in her being fired from two factories. At the same time, the community around her judged her for suing her neighbour. Despite the hardship she faced, Win Win said:

“I want to be a role model for other women and my daughters. I used to be afraid to speak up for myself and for other women. My daughters are at the age of 7 and 8. I want to show them and other women that we have a right to access justice. I do not know much, but the little that I know is that my children have to be more educated than I am, in order to defend themselves. In a patriarchal society, women are always judged whether they’re right or wrong. So, I fight for the justice that I know I deserve.”

After one year of going through many trials, the attacker was finally sentenced to six months of jail. This story is one of courage and strength displayed by Win Win and serves as a lesson for all women and men. It shows the importance of fighting against gender-based violence and supporting women to speak out and to continue to strive for gender equality.