The Myanmar Women’s Self Defence League is the kind of place where makeup bags sit alongside free cannisters of pepper spray.
- The UN says Myanmar is facing a “silent emergency” with women harassed daily
- The #MeToo movement hasn’t taken off in Myanmar largely due to language barriers
- Sex education is rare in a country that does not even have a word for vagina
Posters declaring “be aware, be careful, be safe” and “no one deserves, or asks, to be sexually harassed” line the walls.
It was these messages that first attracted Yangon resident Michelle Mayshell to the league, where she now works as a self-defence and martial arts instructor.
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding out there among women, and I want to reduce those differences and stop sexual harassment and domestic violence,” the 25-year-old told the ABC.
Myanmar is facing a “silent emergency” according to the United Nations Population Fund in the country, which says sexual harassment is rife and violence against women endemic.
“It ranges from groping on buses to human trafficking,” it states in a recent report.
“It includes harassment, cyber exploitation, psychological and economic violence, date rape, marital rape, gang rape.”
Michelle still remembers the first time she was sexually harassed — at 15 she was cornered by an older man on a bus until she managed to break free and jump off.
“I was really scared that first time,” she said.
It was the first of many such encounters for Michelle, often on public transport where women can be easily cornered.
“Another time I was going to university and the bus driver touched my boobs — I didn’t know how to respond at the time.”
Michelle says reliable figures on sexual harassment and assault are virtually non-existent, with authorities refusing to take the issue seriously.
“We have very weak laws about sexual harassment and sexual assault, and police think that catcalling and harassment are very normal, and they think it is not a very big deal,” she said.
Stories like Michelle’s are common in Myanmar, a society that places particular emphasis on strong masculinity and sits at 148 out of 187 countries on the UN Gender Inequality Index.
In the absence of reliable national figures, the UN believes reported cases are just a fraction of the total.
‘I can be strong and beautiful at the same time’
Anxious to protect herself, Michelle enrolled in the only martial arts course she could find that was willing to take a woman.
“I was the only girl in the class,” she said.
“That’s all, out of 30 students — people think when I started doing boxing, they think I will just drop out and disappear, but I kept on doing it.”
Fed up with the constant criticism from men while learning martial arts, Michelle entered into the Myanmar Miss Universe pageant where she used self-defence as her talent to challenge views on gender roles and women and placed as a finalist.
“People think I’m so manly doing martial arts, and I wanted to challenge myself that I can be strong, and I can be soft and beautiful at the same time,” she said.
Following this exposure, other women started asking Michelle to teach them self-defence, which brought her to the Women’s Self Defence League which she founded with a group of other women.
Since opening their doors two years ago, some 300 women have attended the classes, as well as young children and members of Myanmar’s LGBTI community.
“It is basically traditional boxing,” Michelle said.
“But we focus on how to stop harassment and how to respond correctly, and how to get out of the situation to protect yourself and defend yourself.”
While the #MeToo movement has taken off in the west, Michelle says this has not penetrated Myanmar society largely due to language barriers.
However, she says in the age of social media women are increasingly sharing their stories and encouraging each other to stand up to abuse and harassment.
“I think it’s a very big issue, but [self-defence and discussing harassment] were not popular before 2015,” she said.
“But then a woman posted about harassment on the bus and it has been really popular since then.
“I want women to value themselves and be confident and independent — at the same time women should support women, and we need to change their way of thinking about other women as we hardly ever have each other’s sympathy.”
Sexual health in a country with no word for vagina
Dr Thet Su Htwe works on the frontline of women’s sexual health in Yangon and says changing attitudes about sexual harassment and assault is more than just being able to physically fight back.
“People assume that talking about sexuality-related things are not permissible because they are dirty, not to be discussed especially in public,” she told the ABC.
“Talking about female genitals or other sexuality-related issues is restricted in culturally accepted norms — in Burmese, the word ‘vagina’ doesn’t exist.”
While working as a sexual health doctor with a non-government organisation, she decided to devote herself full-time to challenging cultural and traditional taboos around sexual health and women’s rights.
In 2016 she founded Strong Flowers, a charity that takes sexual health and reproduction classes to schools and into different religious and ethnic communities. She also works closely with the Myanmar Women’s Self Defence League.
“Most parents daren’t to teach their pre-teen kids about sexual health, nor is there any [classes] from school or from any other sources,” Dr Su Htwe, who is herself a Muslim in a majority Buddhist country, said.
“The thought is ‘children will get to know when the time comes from themselves’ and ‘these are not suitable to be discussed in this age’.
“Teachers don’t have enough confidence to talk about sexual and reproductive health issues among students, especially when there are mixed boys and girls.”
Through her workshops Dr Su Htwe says basic education can create incremental shifts in attitude that over time lead to better outcomes for women.
“Women become empowered and confident in themselves by knowing the values of their bodies, their sexuality and reproductive health rights, together with learning how to protect themselves from different kinds of sexual harassment.
“Moreover, they spread that knowledge in their own families and to the women groups that they work and socialise with.”
She says the men she teaches have also have benefited.
“Most men changed their perception about gender equality, [have a] better understanding of self-respect and respect for other genders and value their bodies,” she said.
The ABC emailed a series of questions to the Myanmar Government but did not receive a response.