Sexual exploitation of Shan women and girls

Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. (Ecclesiastes 4:1 ESV)

Shan-Tai prayer month 2011, day 29

Aged 14, raped then burned alive

Thailand has long been known for it’s sleazy sex ‘trade’ and Burma is known for being violently oppressive. This combination makes life for many Shan women a torment at the mercy of lustful men.

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. (Licence to Rape, p6)

Rape in Burma

Under ‘normal’ circumstances rape is no more common amongst Shan than in other cultures. However, the Burma Army has been using rape as a weapon of war against the Shan:

Sexual violence serves the multiple purpose of not only terrorizing local communities into submission, but also flaunting the power of the dominant troops over the enemy’s women, and thereby humiliating and demoralizing resistance forces. Furthermore, it serves as a “reward” to troops for fighting in the war. (Licence to Rape, p7)

The suffering endured by Shan women in Burma is hard to comprehend. There is usually no justice – 85% of rapes are committed by officers in the Army who either deny offending or simply take an attitude of “so what are you going to do about it?”, knowing full well that power is on their side. Often when a woman or girl reports a rape to the village headman he doesn’t take it up with the army because of a well-placed fear that he himself will be beaten for making an accusation.

In addition there is a stigma projected upon rape victims, who may be rejected by their community, even their own family, and often by their husbands. The initial trauma of a violent rape causes years of suffering for the innocent woman who was coerced.

The fact that one of the women repeatedly raped during a period of almost two months (case 51) became insane is an indication of the level of trauma experienced by women subjected to rape. Another woman became an opium addict following the rape (case 76), and abandoned her young child as a result. (Licence to Rape, p22)

In another case, a schoolgirl who was raped in the street by a Burmese army soldier, was refused support by her family. “My family didn’t understand, and they didn’t take care of me. They didn’t accept me, and my friends looked down on me. I felt completely alone and depressed. This was in 1991, when I was in 10th standard in Murng Hsat high school. I had to take an examination soon after the rape, but my depression kept me from taking the exam. This affected everything, and my life went downhill.” (case 1) (Licence to Rape, p23)

Sex slavery in Thailand

While the menace of rape threatens women and girls on the Burmese side of the border, on the Thai side prostitution and AIDS decimate the lives of young women and girls. I use the heading ‘sex slavery’ because there seems little doubt that no woman would willingly subject herself to the life of a sex worker in Thailand.

The infection rate with HIV is 50%, meaning that at the time a survey was conducted half of all prostitutes surveyed were HIV positive. These women cannot afford treatment so will inevitably die of AIDS. With such a high incidence of infection, working in the sex industry is virtually a death sentence. Why do they do it?

Shan women are very attractive and have unique features so are in high demand as prostitutes. They are not allowed to work legally in Thailand so whatever industry they work in has risks of being deported. And they are very poor, making them desperate to get any work. Many Shan girls end up as prostitutes in order to eat.

A common scenario is that a girl is offered a job which pays well. She naively agrees, not knowing what the job really is – the offer may be of work in a bar or café. She only discovers the sordid truth after she is already indebted to the pimp and cannot escape without paying an amount of money way beyond anything she could afford. She is a slave with invisible chains holding her, being worked to death.

Pray for:

  • Protection of Shan women and girls on both sides of the Thai border.
  • The international community to press for justice for victims of war crimes in Burma.
  • Jesus to comfort and heal the women who are suffering from sexual abuse (Luke 7:37–48).
  • The Church of Christ to be His compassionate face and arms to these women (John 8:2–11).

External Resources:

Download the Shan Prayer Guide:

30 Days of Prayer for the Shan

Images of Shan sex workers: JPHulme