Development, Law, Social policy, Arts, culture & society | Asia, Southeast Asia

19 July 2018

Systemic inertia in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is hampering efforts to promote and protect the rights of women in the region, Hui Ying Lee writes.

As the #MeToo movement gains social media traction, women and girls are speaking out about the challenges and experiences they face. Aside from tales of sexual abuse in Hollywood, the world has also heard from those trapped in conflict zones or trafficked out of volatile areas.

One particularly harrowing story that made global headlines was that of Rajuma, a Rohingya Muslim, who was gang-raped and had her 18-month-old baby boy thrown into a fire.

Women have always been present in conflict zones in the ASEAN region. In Indonesia, Acehnese women have played roles as combatants, mediators, and lobbyists. In the Kachin province of Myanmar, women participate as soldiers or civilian-trained administrative members of the Kachin Independence Organization.

For a region with numerous ongoing conflict zones, ASEAN needs a gender and security agenda to protect the well-being of women and girls.

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Over the years, ASEAN has shown a willingness to engage with the civil and political human rights issues that lie at the heart of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda – an initiative that aims to promote gender equality in peace and security decision-making processes at national, local and international levels.

The ASEAN Community Vision 2025 seeks to realise “an inclusive community that promotes high quality of life, equitable access to opportunities for all and promotes and protects human rights of women, children, youth, the elderly/older persons, persons with disabilities, migrant workers, and vulnerable and marginalised groups.”

Women are included in this vision. At the 2017 ASEAN Summit, Southeast Asian states reaffirmed their commitment to promote the WPS agenda in the region. Actors responsible include the ten ASEAN member states, the ASEAN Secretariat, the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC), and the ASEAN Committee on Women.

Yet, the WPS agenda has often been said to be sidelined from ASEAN’s list of priorities. How then does ASEAN fare with its commitment to the rights of women?

As a regional body, ASEAN has done much to promote and protect the rights of women. Landmark commitments include the Declaration of the Advancement of Women in the ASEAN Region in 1988, and the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women in the ASEAN Region in 2004. The organisation has also held regional meetings such as the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Women in order to facilitate discussion. These meetings consistently call for a regional action plan.

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In 2018, UN Women published a regional guidelines on the collection and analysis of data on violence against women and girls, fulfilling the repeated calls by external stakeholders to draw up an action plan. This serves as an important touchstone document for ASEAN’s commitment to end violence against women in the region.

Another aspect of ASEAN’s plan to promote the WPS agenda was to develop strategies to mainstream gender perspectives into the three pillars of the ASEAN Community.

The first official document on mainstreaming gender emphasised the need to adopt gender mainstreaming policies during the Fourth World Conference on Women, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in 1995. The formation of the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) Network of Social Service Agencies in 2012 aimed to promote dialogue with stakeholders at national and regional levels, as well as a campaign to stop violence against women. In addition, over 80 ASEAN Secretariat staff members have participated in gender mainstreaming training to enhance their practical knowledge of measuring organisational capacities to address gender issues.

All ten member states have also ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. So on paper, ASEAN is doing relatively well when it comes to addressing gender-based violence.

However, despite the vibrancy of the women’s movement in Asia, like the #HeforShe campaign, which seeks to raise awareness by encouraging men and boys to be agents of change to promote a culture of respect for women and girls, the Asia-Pacific Forum on Women, Leadership and Development still observes a lack of “sustained and regular regional forum that’s specifically focused on women in conflict and post-conflict situations and on women, peace and security agenda… not all governments in South and Southeast Asia are willing and interested in dealing with the women, peace and security agenda”.

Further, the varying levels of progress and commitment from member states potentially impede outcomes. For example, marital rape and other forms of sexual violence have not been covered fully in the legislations of all ASEAN member states. In Indonesia, The Prevention of Sexual Violence against Women Bill which includes comprehensive guidelines on the prevention and reporting of sexual violence has been in development since 2014, and it has yet to be passed as legislation.

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The amount of resources member states commit to addressing gender-based violence also varies. Malaysia, Cambodia, and Indonesia have a separate ministry with the mandate of policymaking and implementation on gender issues. On the other hand, the gender portfolios of Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Brunei, Laos, and Myanmar are included within a specialised department of a larger ministry. To date, the Philippines and Indonesia are the only two ASEAN members with a National Action Plan on the WPS agenda.

While many ASEAN policies were developed in the post-Cold War era, long-standing documents such as the ASEAN Charter and the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation are almost untouchable. ASEAN member states face an even greater challenge incorporating gender perspectives in the existing rules of the game.

More fundamentally, ASEAN’s core principles of sovereignty, non-use of force, peaceful settlement of disputes, non-interference, and consensus in decision-making processes, all make it impossible to enforce and criticise member states’ policies that violate the human rights of women and children. All in all, this makes for painfully slow progress when it comes to achieving peace and security for the women of the region.

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