Police officer U Myint Aung said survivors who appeared "physically or mentally disabled" must provide medical documents before opening a case. Photo: Kay Zon Nway/Myanmar Now
KYAUNG KONE - It took the police 10 days to act after Thet Thet* reported the man who sexually assaulted her. If it hadn’t been for her autism, officers would have arrested him straight away.
When she showed up the station to report the attack early this year, police said the 33-year-old would first have to go with a family member to several hospitals to get a form confirming she was “mentally disabled”.
But she was unable to afford transport. “We had no choice but to ask for help from the other villagers,” she said. “It was really humiliating.”
All survivors of sexual assault in Myanmar face enormous barriers to achieving justice, even by the already dismal standards set by the rest of the world.
Police recorded just 741 cases in 2014, even though research from the same year found half of all respondents had experienced rape, sexual assault or sexual harassment.
In Thailand, a country with a similar population where underreporting is also believed to be a big problem, police logged 32,000 cases in the same year.
For people with autism or intellectual disabilities, difficulties with communication and discrimination present an extra barrier. Those who do report are often confronted with a tangle of unnecessary bureaucracy.
It is unclear why police officers feel the need for survivors to provide proof of their conditions, and there seems to be no basis for this requirement in law.
“Medical and recommendation letters from the respective doctors are required to prove that the victim is physically or mentally disabled,” said U Myint Aung, an officer at Kyaung Kone police station, though he did not elaborate as to why they were needed.
Advocates argue that autism should not be classed as a disability but in Myanmar, as in many other countries, it is often viewed as such.
Thet Thet had to travel to three different clinics and hospitals to get the medical certificates and doctor’s recommendation letter she needed.
First, she got a check up at the local township hospital in order to get referred to Yangon General Hospital. The doctors in Yangon gave her another check up before referring her to the Ywar Thar Gyi Mental Hospital on the outskirts of the city, where she was finally given the documents the police had requested.
The process took 10 days, and in the meantime she worried about seeing the man who assaulted her. “He just walked freely around the village,” said Thet Thet’s mother.
Daw Htoo Htoo Aung, an advocate for people with disabilities in Myint Wa Kyun Paw, said a workaround for these barriers would be for the government to issue ID cards that people could present to police instead of medical documents.
There also need to be special procedures in place at police stations to help people with disabilities and communication issues report crimes, she added.
Wai Wai, a teenager from near Kyaung Kone, Ayerwady region, who also has autism, also faced demands for documents when her family tried to open a case against her rapist.
She had become pregnant from the assault and miscarried shortly before reporting the case, adding to her distress and making it even more difficult for her to communicate.
When the case made it to court, she found it impossible to testify, but received no help or support to do so. Instead, the defense lawyer asked her if the court “should trust someone who is insane.”
In less stressful situations Wai Wai is able to communicate clearly what happened to her, her brother said. “I wish she could have told the court everything the way she tells her siblings at home,” he said.
There are no statistics for Myanmar, but data from other countries shows that people with disabilities are more likely to experience rape and sexual assault that the general population.
Ko Nay Lin Soe of the Myanmar Independent Living Initiative said rapists target people with disabilities because they know it is harder for them to report the incident to others.
Naw Zar Phyu Khant, research officer at the Yangon-based NGO iSchool-Myanmar, said many cases only come to light because survivors fall pregnant.
Attackers may groom people with intellectual disabilities to view the abuse as normal, she said. “They don’t understand whether it is bad or good and don’t know to report it.”
*Names have been changed
(Editing by Joshua Carroll)