Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Veil of Sexual Shame: The Impact of Sexual Violence and its Social Stigma in the Case of the Rohingya

It has commonly come to be known that sexual violence is integrally associated with shame and stigma. The logic that aggressors employ in using this tactic as a weapon of war is usually meant not only  to undermine the individual but also the collective identity of an entire community. In this way aggressors destroy social relationships and the fabric of a community that thrive on traditional religious and moral understandings of the institution of marriage and family. In a recent UN Security Council Meeting dealing with the repercussions of sexual violence in conflict situations, Acting Special Representative of the Secretary General of Sexual Violence in Conflict Adama Dieng stated that not only does sexual violence “turn victims into outcasts by fracturing families and corroding community structures but it also prevents justice from really being done.” In Dieng’s words it is the “stigma that kills and prevents victims from coming forward.  Much of the time it is this fear and cultural stigma prevents most survivors from claiming their rights and the proper legal assistance available to them.
Social stigma associated with sexual violence may in some societies be even more pronounced than in others. Research has, for example shown that in the MENA region while the rate of sexual violence is quite high the prosecution and conviction of rape is quite rare. This can be attributed to the fact that rape victims will probably face a plethora of stigma associated with the crime, part of which includes dishonour and accordingly a diminished prospect at marriage. The severity of the stigma that attaches is evident through some of the laws that are promulgated in some Islamic countries which go as far as forcing rape victims to marry their rapists in an attempt to restore family honour and dignity. In such situations it is believed that the woman who has been raped is better off being married to her rapist as a trade for her decency and honour. No doubt this is where some people err and confuse Islamic law by mistakenly equating rape with adultery or fornication. Interestingly the Quaran condemns the crime of rape classifying it as one of the violent and vilest crimes and clearly denotes it as a form of terrorism.
Considering the social stigma of sexual violence, often faced in some communities it may not be so far fetched in trying to understand the recent events surrounding Rohingya particularly the plight of Rohingya women and children who have fallen prey to and who have become victims of sexual violence in recent months. The massive displacement of this Burmese ethnic group has reached a climax as of last year where approximately half a million Rohingya have fled the country leaving those displaced living in refugee camps all across neighbouring Bangladesh .  Since 1824 the Rohingya as a Muslim minority in Myanmar have faced and continue to face a plethora of discrimination. This has been due to the fact that they have been rendered citizenless following applicable legislation regulating their status in Myanmar and are therefore seen as illegally residing in the country. As a result, many have been unable to get access to basic human rights some of which include proper access to education, religion, healthcare, and employment.  
As a further consequence, tensions emanating out of the relationship between Buddhist and Rohingya in Rakhine state has further exacerbated matters and has acted as a catalyst in the most recent humanitarian crisis in Myanmar. This has led to large-scale attacks against Rohingya including large- scale sexual attacks where women and children have been indiscriminately targeted. Increasingly evidence confirms that Myanmar’s military uses systematic mass rape and sexual violence as a form of ethnic cleansing, the impact of which is to arguably destroy this ethnic minority. Employing sexual violence as a weapon of war has evidently demonstrated that such violations are so powerful in Rohingya communities that it threatens to derail family life and family honour. From interviews conducted with Rohingya victims of sexual violence it has become apparent that many victims of rape much of the time keep the details of their sexual violations a secret fearing that their status as ‘soiled’ women will not only undermine their existing relationships with family and friends but more so, the relationships they hold with their husbands. In other words, there is a fear that once their husbands discover that they have been sexually violated they might face further rejection and dispossession. Single women also face a similar fear and stigma, namely that they will never be married or desired as a prospective partner should their ‘status’ as one who has been sexually marred, come out into the open. An explanation for this might be that the violation in question is deemed to be so shameful that erroneously part of the blame falls on the victim rather than on the sole perpetrator/s of the crime. Women in some instances may thus be seen as complicit in the act of rape and may therefore be perceived as having sex outside the boundaries of their marriage union and their religion
It is not surprising, that perpetrators of sexual violence also realize these benefits and therefore employ sexual violence methodically, as an alternative to weapons, but nevertheless still as a very effective weapon of war.  What may however come across unusual, in this particular instance could be however, the fact that Buddhists who are much of the time considered to be peace loving and non-violent have been the ones who have been pivotal in orchestrating these vicious and planned attacks. This goes to show that Western understandings of Buddhism tend to idealize and romanticize Buddhism and that Buddhism  itself like any other religion may be prone to corruption and used to promote violence and extremism if wrongly wielded. This raises a number of issues that I will address in a future post, namely  the origins of violence in Buddhism as a means to political ends; additionally, the role of women in Buddhism considering the inferior position that women hold in Buddhist culture and relatedly, the role of sex in Buddhism if one considers the use and value of women as sexual consorts in Tantric Buddhism. Finally the reasons why anti-muslim or anti- Rohingya sentiment has been spreading in Myanmar will be pondered upon to consider the deeper issues at play.

Posted by Ingrid Roestenburg Morgan

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