Tackling gender violence amidst democratic transition.

With the highlights of the May 12 2016 Forbes Women’s Summit freshly imprinted (particularly the remarks of Samantha Power in relation to women and human rights)— underlining calls to strengthen the voice of women in the context of tackling displacement, structural violence, and trafficking issues must remain high priority. Friday’s US State Department briefing covering Secretary Kerry’s forthcoming visit to Myanmar/Burma on May 22nd inevitably trains the spotlight of South East Asian specialists on the situation there, particularly in the aftermath of international scrutiny brought by Oxford University’s May 11 South Asian Research Cluster Conference. The event’s targeted  objectives spanned academic disciplines and policy mandates in an effort to raise awareness and exert influence at leadership, research, and practitioner levels.

In the aftermath of the fall 2015 media spotlight on the crisis, Yu Kojima cited Myanmar’s June 2014 endorsement of the UN Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict as a serious starting point for addressing gender violence against IDPs in the country. The endorsement followed several high profile international publications on the issue—from the publication of Fear and Hope by the Women’s Refugee Commission over a decade ago, to the more proximate Gender Equality Network’s January 2013 Discussion Paper Developing Anti Violence Against Women Laws. Endorsement of the UN Declaration came in the month prior to the comprehensive July 2014 report Sexual and gender-based violence in Burma/Myanmar—prepared for the Australian Research Council Discovery Project: Preventing Mass Sexual and Gender Based Violence in Conflict and Post-Conflict Settings in Asia-Pacific. A November 2014 Actionaid Gender Analysis Brief followed, offering pithy insight into bottom up awareness-raising and response initiatives (prior to releasing the brief the organization trained 60 women paralegals across the country to command basic knowledge of various types of violence, equipping them with the legal know how to respond with appropriate intervention and reporting techniques).

Last week’s event at Oxford brought together academics and Myanmar specialists from across the humanities and social sciences, including Amartya Sen, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Daniel Feierstein, Barbara Harrell-Bond, Michael Charney, Shapan Adnan, Penny Green, Thomas McManus, Maya Tudor, Azeem Ibrahim, and Maung Zarni. Along with former UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, lawyers, civil society representatives, and activists added to the cohort—in their midst  Arzhil Mohd Amin, Laura Haigh, Narul Islam, Mathew Smith, Ahamed Jarmal, and Hameed Hussain. Additional presenters and delegates representing public health and medical engagement perspectives included Dr S. Saad Mahmood, Dr Ambia Perveen, and Nicola Pocock. Of note was the consensus urging for more explicitly anthropological and feminist modes of engagement by international law and policy makers. Calls for top down action initiatives found harmony with concurrence that justice should be understood through a social process, legal-anthropological lens.

With UNHCR reporting this month that displaced villagers are returning to Rakhine State, the issue of pursuing accountability for sexual violence against IDPs following resettlement emerged as particularly pertinent. Broad discussion, outside the Myanmar context, of global accountability for atrocities followed by way of Daniel Feierstein’s Annual ISCI Lecture at the University of London on May 12. Linking the path to justice and human rights compliance with sustaining historicist and peace building approaches in the context of ruptured communal and social ties,  a combined truth and reconciliation–international prosecution emphasis leveraged a multi-faceted approach to accountability. Mapping the relationship between identity and conflict made for the seminal point of departure.

Where the business community’s readiness to assist in re-building post-conflict communities to empower women and girls was a key message that emerged from this year’s South East Asia Symposium—last week’s conference was more muted on the issue of business community engagement of IDP sexual violence issues in Myanmar. I look forward to reviewing this over forthcoming projects.