Asia Pacific / Social Issues

As rapes rise in Myanmar, augmented reality could help smash sex taboos

Thomson Reuters Foundation

Technology could help Myanmar fight a rise in rape cases, says an award-winning entrepreneur who is using augmented reality to bring sex education to the socially conservative country.

The rape in May of a 3-year-old girl at a private nursery 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 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 the 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.

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, which is becoming ever more popular globally in everything from arts to flight training. In AR, digital images are superimposed on reality to create a rich, interactive experience that combines the real and virtual worlds.

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

Her project on sex education, named Bay Kin (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 4-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.”

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 3-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 licenses or the hasty way police handled investigations.

Child rapists face a maximum of life imprisonment if convicted.

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5