Mi Mi was on the way home from work with her father in Thanbyuzayat, Myanmar, when it happened. It was dark. “I knew there was someone behind us, but I hadn’t turned around yet to see who it was. I thought it was just people on their way home, like us,” she says. Then there was a splash. “The first splash was on my chest. I turned around to see what it was. Then I saw his face. He splashed the second time right to my face.” The splashing was acid, and the ‘he’ was Mi Mi’s ex-boyfriend. “I cannot find words to describe the pain,” she says. I meet Mi Mi (she does not want to give her real name) six months after the attack took place in May this year, and her injuries are still horrific. Seriously scarred down one side of her face, she has lost one eye and nearly her ear, and her arms and chest are also badly damaged. The injuries are blue and purple and vivid. Mi Mi and I meet in a monastery in the shadow of Yangon’s glittering Shwedagon Pagoda. She stays here when she comes into the country’s biggest city for treatment, around once a month. My translator and I are welcomed by a friendly older lady and taken behind a curtained-off section of the monastery. We later find out this is because Mi Mi does not dare to go outside. She also does not want to be photographed. She smiles as we come in but when she talks to us, her voice breaks. She is only 23. “There is no happiness anymore in my home,” she says, when I ask how things are going. “I don’t talk much anymore. I don’t want people to see my face, so I stay in my bedroom. Sometimes my mum stares at me, and I pretend like I don’t see, but she is so sad. I know she is.” But while Mi Mi is scarred from the attack, both physically and psychologically, she is not scared. In fact, she is now fighting to get justice against her attacker – the first woman in Myanmar ever to try to do so in a case like this. “This happens a lot, but the victims do not dare to make a case out of it. They just stay in their houses,” says Mi Mi, aware that every time she ventures outside, it requires a major personal struggle. “If I speak out, there are women out there who will stand up for me and raise awareness. I think if the judges hear about these tragedies, they will start to take these kinds of cases seriously.” Sadly, there are big obstacles in Mi Mi’s way. Myanmar is one of the only countries in southeast Asia that has no law regarding violence against women, relying instead on the outdated penal code brought in by the British during colonial times.
One organisation that knows all too well the challenges faced by individuals like Mi Mi is Akhaya Women, a pioneering group based in Yangon. They have been championing women’s rights since 2008, and are now working with Mi Mi. Founder Daw Htar Htar says the lack of a law to protect women only builds on the cultural norm of silence in the face of abuse. Last year, she told a local news organisation: “Domestic violence exists everywhere, and is part of normal life in Myanmar; we don’t discuss rape, and we don’t report it.” But her organisation is committed to changing this, through landmark cases like Mi Mi’s, and by working with the government on drafting the long-delayed law to tackle violence against women. “One of our objectives with this campaign is to pass this law, as soon as possible,” her colleague, Nan Sandi Moon, tells me. However, the legal process won’t come cheap – and neither will Mi Mi’s treatment. Mi Mi’s parents are rubber farmers and, before the attack, Mi Mi had a job as well. But now neither she nor her father, who was also hit in the attack, can work because of their injuries. Mi Mi’s total medical costs are estimated at £12,500; legal costs could add at least £3,500 to that amount. Akhaya will step in to pay the legal costs, and have also launched a campaign – mainly on Facebook, which is very popular in Myanmar – to raise the rest of the money for Mi Mi’s treatment. So far, they have raised £2,000 from other concerned Burmese women and organisations, including nuns and banks. It’s an impressive total, considering Myanmar is a very poor country – but they need more. For her part, Mi Mi says she can hardly find the words to thank the people helping her. “Otherwise I couldn’t get any money, any justice, or any treatment,” she says. The treatment will be an arduous process and could take up to five years, costing millions of Burmese kyat. But Akhaya and Mi Mi’s campaign isn’t just about money. It’s also about awareness. “We set up the campaign to let people know the survivor’s difficulties and emotions, and to get support for her treatment,” says Nan Sandi Moon. “It is also for behaviour change – to change social norms that encourage ‘daring’ behaviour from boys, which can lead to violent behaviour.” For Mi Mi, the attack formed part of a pattern after she and her ex split up. “He once said: ‘I will make your life a living hell, I will make you feel dead while you are alive.’ I knew something would happen one day,” she says. Mi Mi has already faced him in court as legal proceedings get under way, although he has yet to make an official appearance. In fact, he snuck in to jeer at her while she gave evidence. “The court did not tell me that he was behind me, because they thought I might be scared,” says Mi Mi. “The judge immediately ordered him to leave, but I intentionally turned around to stare at him. I am not scared of him. At all.” But for all her bravado – “I’m not afraid, because [the acid attack], it’s already the worst thing he could do” – Mi Mi found it hard to appear in front of the crowds. “I didn’t want to go,” she admits. “There were so many people looking at me, all just staring. I felt like I had no power to stand in front of them. I wanted to disappear.” But Mi Mi is brave. “Some people have said to me, it’s ok, you don’t have to do this – but even when he threw acid at me, I didn’t cry. I didn’t shout. I just stayed quiet,” she says. She isn’t staying quiet anymore. “The acid attack was unbearable. This attack will be with me for life. If he goes to jail for a long time, it will scare off other potential attackers,” she says. If you would like to make a donation towards Mi Mi's medical and legal costs, please click here.