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Women sell Thanakha wood at the Kyaik-Khauk pagoda festival in Tanlyin township, outside Yangon, February 2, 2015. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

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By Ei Cherry Aung

YANGON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - After almost a decade of physical and verbal abuse, Phyu Phyu made a life-changing decision that few women in Myanmar dare to take - the 38-year-old mother-of-two left her husband.

Phyu Phyu, an accountant from Yangon's Thingangyun Township, said the abuse started after her husband and parents-in-law forced her to quit her job to focus on raising their children.

For years Phyu Phyu - whose real name was withheld for fear of retaliation - put up with daily scoldings and regular beatings but she felt unable to leave.

There are no laws in Myanmar to prevent violence against women at home or mentioning marital rape, with local community intervention often the first step if a woman complains.

But women's rights activists are now campaigning for change and hope a proposed bill now before the government will give women more power to walk out on domestic abuse.

"I was hit with a broken glass, and got bruises and cuts on my head. Once I was hit with a steel pipe and broke my arm," Phyu Phyu told Myanmar Now, an independent website supported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"But I was worried that my daughters would be labelled 'fatherless' and I, a divorcee ... now I am free from domestic violence," she added after leaving the family home in July.

Women's rights activists said Phyu Phyu was one of many women in Myanmar who face a raft of cultural and legal barriers if they try to break free of abusive marriages - and the law is not on their side.

Rape and violence against women and girls is surrounded by a culture of silence and rarely leads to police complaints, activists say - and complaints are even less likely if abuses happen within the household as it is seen as a family matter.

Thida Myint, deputy director at Irrawaddy Women's Network, a non-government organisation which raises public awareness about domestic violence, said her staff struggle to explain that women should not accept abuse from husbands and can seek legal protection.

"Most women hardly ever disclose abuse by their husbands and see it as a common issue," she said.

POLICE SEND VICTIMS BACK TO COMMUNITY

The Irrawaddy Women's Network works in about 30 villages and runs a helpline for women who want to talk about abuse, seek help with a divorce, or make a police complaint.

But since the programme began in 2014, it has only helped 10 women file a criminal complaint or initiate a divorce.

Thida Myint said women who decide to file for a divorce are likely to face resistance from husbands and family members while local officials will ask for proof of abuse before considering making a separation formal.

Filing a criminal complaint of physical abuse in marriage is hard, activists said, as police usually prefer community intervention and will tell victims to first ask ward or village officials to solve problems with their husbands.

Officer Zaw Win Naing, from Kyauktada Township Police Station in Yangon, acknowledged that police would initially invite relatives, local elders or ward administrators to mediate in any claims of domestic violence or marital rape.

A 2014 survey in Myanmar by international NGO ActionAid said favouring community-level intervention in cases of violence against women "often perpetuates a culture of impunity, by awarding survivors of violence with monetary compensation, and merely reprimanding perpetrators for 'bad behaviour'."

May Sabe Phyu, director of the Gender Equality Network, said public attitudes and police procedures needed to change while Win Win Khaing, an activist with women's rights group Akhaya, said men's attitudes towards women are the root cause of abuse.

"Domestic violence will not stop as long as husbands keep up an authoritarian role in the family," she said.

Myanmar's laws provide punishments for rape and sexual abuse but drawn out court cases and corruption in the judiciary often undermine law enforcement and discourage victims from filing police complaints.

There are currently no laws to allow women to seek restraining orders on violent men and Myanmar's Penal Code does not refer to marital rape although it states that a man is said to commit rape if it is against a woman's will.

Min Thet Zin, a lawyer in Yangon who has helped victims of domestic abuse, said a lack of legal protection combined with conservative attitudes meant convictions were "very few".

Since 2014, NGOs have worked with the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement to draft the first National Prevention of Violence against Women bill but few details have been released and it is unclear if it mentions marital rape.

It is up to the new National League for Democracy government to finalise the draft.

Than Than Win, 35, whose real name was withheld, wants to escape her abusive husband in Yangon's Kyauktada Township, but does not dare file for divorce or a make a criminal complaint

"He beats me any time is he is angry at me. He also threatened to torture our children if I complain about his abuse to the police," said the mother of three, sobbing.

Thet Thet Aung, deputy director at the Workers' Affairs Department of The 88 Generation Peace and Open Society activist group, said a recent case highlighted such fears are real.

Earlier this year, Aye Thandar, 42, filed a complaint of domestic violence with Dala Township Police Station in Yangon against her husband.

On July 5, as she left a court after the initial proceedings, she was fatally stabbed her in the neck, according to Dala police. A man was arrested on the spot.

"This incident has scared many women in Yangon who want to lodge a complaint against their husbands over domestic violence," said Thet Thet Aung.

(Editing by Ros Russell, Paul Vrieze, Belinda Goldsmith @BeeGoldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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