INTERVIEW-Tech could help Myanmar smash sex taboos as rapes rise

by Beh Lih Yi | @BehLihYi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 16 October 2019 12:19 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A couple uses a mobile phone on the side of a street in Yangon, March 7, 2013. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

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The overall number of rape cases in Myanmar surged from 1,100 cases in 2016 to more than 1,500 in 2018, nearly two-thirds involving a child

By Beh Lih Yi

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Technology could help Myanmar fight a rise in rape cases, said an award-winning entrepreneur who is using augmented reality to bring sex education to the socially conservative country.

The rape in May of a three-year-old girl at a private nursery in Myanmar has sparked outrage, prompting thousands to take to the streets to demand justice and highlighting a paucity of sex education in the country.

It came as the overall number of rape cases in Myanmar surged from 1,100 cases in 2016 to more than 1,500 in 2018, nearly two-thirds involving a child, according to local media quoting government data.

"The case was obvious evidence that we are lacking sex education," said Hla Hla Win, a former English teacher who founded Myanmar-based 360ed, a social enterprise that seeks to revamp education with technology.

"It broke the hearts of so many parents but it was also a wake-up call that we can no longer see sex education as a taboo," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Myanmar's biggest city Yangon on Wednesday.

The 38-year-old Harvard graduate was named one of 40 social entrepreneurs of the year by the World Economic Forum in New York last month for her work in transforming the way hundreds of thousands of students learn in Myanmar.

Key to her work is augmented reality (AR): ever more popular globally in everything from arts to flight training. Under AR, digital images are superimposed on reality to create a rich, interactive experience that combines real and virtual worlds.

In Myanmar, 360ed uses AR in a series of apps it has developed since 2016 to help students better visualise complex subjects such as chemistry and biology.

Her project on sex education, named "Bay Kin" or "Danger Free", was launched in August soon after the child-rape case ignited national debate about sex, safety, children and consent.

The product includes a series of sex education books - in both paper and AR formats - as well as comics and games, that teach students about everything from sex organs to pregnancy.

"As a mother and a teacher, I'm keen on this topic because many teenagers are curious about it but we don't have a tool to teach them," said Hla Hla Win, who has a four-year-old daughter.

"A lot of teenagers in Myanmar thought pregnancy could just happen from sharing a same glass of water with the opposite sex," she added.

So far about 100 schools have partnered with 360ed to use its sex education books; now it is working with teachers to roll out the AR technology.

"We're in the early stage because many teachers still feel embarrassed to teach sex in schools but AR is fun, so we hope it can help to overcome this," said Hla Hla Win.

The three-year-old girl, nicknamed Victoria, testified via video link at a trial last month after a school employee was charged with raping her. The case has been a lightning rod for popular protest in Myanmar, be it over the many nurseries that lack licences or the hasty way police handled investigations.

Child rapists face a maximum life imprisonment if convicted.

(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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