Gender roles in Shan State
Gender roles in Shan State, and traditional responses to rape
"nang ying ker lii pho, to sat ker lii cao"
(a woman respects her husband; an animal respects its master)
- old Shan proverb
Traditional rural Shan society is male-dominated. Men occupy all leading positions in the public sphere, as village headmen, and members of village and temple committees. In family life, they are regarded as the heads of the household.
Women play no role in decision-making at the community level. They are expected to marry, serve their husbands, and bear children. In the household, women do most of the cooking, cleaning and childcare tasks; outside the house they also fetch water, plant and collect vegetables.
Even though women are often seen in the markets selling vegetables and other products, and are expected to keep the family's money, it is usually men who will make any major financial transactions, like selling of the rice harvest or livestock. They also take the major decisions in the family regarding finances (as illustrated by the Shan proverb: "mae bae pho, thuk nii": If a man is dominated by his wife, he'll be in debt.)
Most Shans are Buddhists, and religious practices reinforce women's subordinate status in the society. Only men can be ordained as monks, who perform key spiritual and ceremonial functions for the community, and therefore enjoy considerable respect and power. Although women can become nuns, they have a lower status than monks and are generally not respected.
In traditional Shan society, the only places of education in villages were temples, where only boys who ordained as novices could be educated. This remains true in some villages in Shan State today. This fact, coupled with the expectation that girls will anyway become wives and mothers, means that most families give priority to their sons' education.
In accordance with their subordinate status, women are expected to be demure in public, and, unlike men, chaste until marriage. Women who lose their virginity before marriage are described as "soom to" or "spoiled", and any women engaging in sex outside marriage are liable to censure, even if the sexual encounter was forced upon them. Fear of censure within their own communities thus inhibits women from reporting incidents of rape.
Nevertheless, in the past, rural Shan women had recourse to customary legal processes to punish rapists. Cases would be brought before village elders, and if found guilty, men would be punished by a fine payable to the women, her parents and the village elders. Women also had the option of taking the cases to the township courts to be tried under the Burmese penal code (according to which the maximum penalty for rape is 10 years in prison.)
Therefore there was some measure of legal protection available to women in the case of sexual violence. However, this has now been eroded by the Burmese military's contempt for the law. In numerous instances of rape in this report the Shan women survivors attempted to seek justice within their community, turning to their parents and the village headmen according to their custom, but were inevitably thwarted by the absolute power exercised by the Burmese military in their areas.