Executive report of panel discussion by Panupong Boontongchuay (James), Program Officer SEA Junction
On 11th September 2019, approximately 40 people gathered at SEA-Junction to attend the panel discussion “How Safe is ASEAN for Women?”, which explored whether governments in Southeast Asia are ensuring effectively the safety of women through women-centered laws and policies. Rosalia Sciortino, Associate Professor at Institute for Population and Social Research (IPSR) Mahidol University & Director of SEA Junction welcomed the panelists and the participants with an introduction of SEA Junction and explained that the panel was organized on the occasion of the ASEAN People Forum 2019, held at Thammasat University (Rangsit Campus). She then expressed her appreciation for a collaboration between SEA-Junction, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and Partners Asia, Connecting Local Leaders with Global Resources and welcomed the Ambassador of Canada to ASEAN, H.E. Ambassador Diedrah Kelly, to deliver an opening remark.
The Ambassador stressed that discrimination and violence against women are not specific only to Southeast Asia, as they are a global concern. The workshop on “Violence on women, peace and security” by the Indonesia-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the panel on “How safe is ASEAN for women?” by SEA-Junction and its partners are examples of Canada-funded initiatives to raise awareness and inspire dialogue to promote gender equality and prevent different forms of discriminations and violence against women.
The panel discussion then started with Rachel Arinii Judhistari’s presentation on “The ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism Response to Women’s Rights”. Currently, Rachel is an East Asia and ASEAN Program Manager at the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum Asia). In the past, she was the Programme Manager for ASEAN Parliamentarian for Human Rights and served in many other key projects which promoted the rights of women and children.
Rachel provided an overview of the legal entities and objectives of ASEAN as specified in the ASEAN charter and highlighted the lack of focus on women’s rights until the establishment of the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) in 2010. In detail, ACWC is a regional-specialized body on the rights of women and children under the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) pillar, with 20 ASEAN member states representatives, namely 10 on women rights and the other 10 on children rights. It is tasked with upholding rights stipulated in the Convention on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which all ten ASEAN member states have ratified.
Despite the establishment of the ACWC as ASEAN’s legal entity to tackle violence against women and children, Rachel pointed out several obstacles to the effective implementation of relevant policies in specific situations. For instance, there is a lack of intragovernmental coordination and support within member states and a problem of poor public visibility. Hence, it is rarely possible to push forward the ACWC policies either at national or regional levels. In addition, its mission is hindered by constant funding constraints and little secretarial support, which in 2017 disabled all planned activities.
Our second speaker, Deepa Bharathi, continued the discussion from a regional perspective with her presentation on “Who are the Women of ASEAN? And How safe is ASEAN for them?” Deepa is the Chief Technical Adviser of the program “Safe and Fair: Realizing women migrant workers’ rights and opportunities in the ASEAN region”, implemented by ILO and the UN Women Regional Offices for Asia and the Pacific.
Deepa stressed the importance to firstly understand the diversity of ASEAN women, since women’s experiences of safety intersect with race, age, ethnicity, social status and occupation, and therefore both terms ‘women’ and ‘safety’ need to be better defined and be specific for different groups of women. Safety also has many meanings, and can be achieved through strategies, practices and policies that aim to reduce gender-based violence involving women’s safety in both public and private spaces, in freedom from poverty, in financial security, and in freedom from all forms of violence and harassment.
“70%-80% of the rapists who reported to UN Women disclosed their rape motivation as their right, entitlement, and fun activity and up to 70%-90% have not been charged with any legal consequences”, Deepa told us to illustrate social factors contributing to violence against women including harmful versions of masculinity, gender stereotypes, women’s fear of additional violence, and gaps in the rule of law. Deepa stressed that enforcing the provisions stipulated in CEDAW should be compulsory to achieve equality in society, both in legalistic and realistic terms.
Our next speaker, Aurora Javate de Dios, is a lifelong feminist leader who combines academic excellence and advocacy for women’s human rights and gender equality. She is currently the Senior Project Director of the Women and Gender Institute at Miriam College, Philippines. In 2010-2015, she was formerly appointed as the Philippines representative for women’s rights to ACWC.
In Aurora’s point of view, violence against women is deeply rooted in gender inequality, discrimination and harmful cultural and social norms, both attitudes and practices. Globally, WHO data estimated that 35 percent of women have experienced either physical or sexual violence while the range in Southeast Asia is from 6 % in Singapore to 44 % in Thailand.
For many women in Southeast Asia, violence is a daily reality. Sexual harassment happens physically in public spaces such as on the roadsides, on public transportations as well as in the cyberspace through sexist and misogynist language. Several examples were drawn from a few speeches delivered by the President of the Philippines, Duterte, who verbally insulted the female political oppositions and the media, who were critical of his administration. These different forms of violence will pose significant impacts on women’s health, their income, social interactions with others and advancement in the professional career. Besides, women will be kept in silence and fear, which in the long-term will limit their opportunity to voice out their opinions. In order to mitigate these serious problems, Aurora recommended public campaigns to reduce gender-based violence as well as the integration of safety measures in public infrastructure and transport system as possible solutions. Education on self-defense should be widely promoted in the region.
As in 2019 Thailand took over the role of chairing the ASEAN Summit and other ASEAN meetings, the fourth speaker from Thailand, Usa Lerdsrisuntad, was ready to echo perspectives on violence against women through her presentation entitled “Inter-linkages between Women’s Marginalization, Economic Policy, Political Authoritarianism and Culture of Value”. At present, she is the Programme Director of the Foundation for Women and a coordinator of the “Protecting the rights of transnational migrant women and children in Thailand” project.
The military regime that took power in 2014 appeared to take an interest in gender equality in order to be perceived as women’s friendly. This resulted in the Gender Equality Law, which however contains exceptions; for example, any actions on the ground of religious principle and national security are not considered as gender discrimination. Due to gender discrimination both in attitudes and practices, more Thai women have entered informal economic sectors including as street vendors and sex workers both in Thailand and overseas, exposing them to exploitative working conditions and human trafficking.
Moreover, Usa explained how gender discrimination interplayed with economic downturn in Thailand by discussing the case of a poor Karen girl farmer (a marginalized community in Thailand) who was raped by her landlord. This was an illustration of how the violence against women exist among the marginalized communities in Thai society also. Women’s organizations are facing challenges in tackling the problems due to lack of funding; hence women are no longer encouraged to fight for justice unless they can access proper legal and financial support.
Our final speaker, Fitriani, is a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) based in Jakarta, Indonesia. Her research focuses on women active engagement in peace and security, including peacekeeping operation and radical groups.
“In 2019, based on Indonesia’s National Commission on Violence against Women, violence, number of cases have been improving, but it does not convey the severity and its actual impact on women”, reported Fitriani. In Indonesia, wives and girlfriends are the most vulnerable groups to violence and public roads and public transports areas are among the venue where sexual harassment occurs more frequently.
In order to better understand the context of gender discrimination and violence against women in Indonesia, Fitriani presented five related issues and how they have posed physical, mental and/or psychological impacts to women and people’s perceptions towards women. First, plans to change the name of the Ministry of Women Empowerment and Children Protection into Ministry of Family Resilience, as a result in the rise of conservatism in Indonesia [which later, however, was not implemented due to wide opposition]. Moreover, the ministry is expected to suffer a drastic drop (48%) in the 2020 National Budget Allocation. Indonesia has ratified all relevant international conventions and established legal frameworks, but still fails in term of enforcement. Second, women’s representation in the parliament; currently, there are eight female ministers, but there is a high level of public skepticism about whether they were selected on their merits or because of their affiliation with other prominent male political figures [Unfortunately, as feared by the speaker at the time, their number went down in the successive cabinet]. Third, the draft national legislation on eliminating sexual violence is opposed by conservative religious groups. This has led to widespread dissemination of fake news that the draft opposes Islamic values and marriage while promoting abortion and LGBTs. Fourth, in similar way as in Thailand, the indigenous and minority groups including the Papuans also face gender-based discrimination and different forms of violence, by both state and non-state actors. Fifth, Indonesia urgently needs to engage women in its national peacemaking and security-building process to assure women’s participation in the ideation, legislation and implementation of women-centered policies and community engagement.
As the panel, with its comprehensive presentations, took most of the time, there was only little time for the Q&A session. One interesting comment was offered by a member of Indonesia Komnas Perempuan (Indonesia National Committee on Women), who observed that conservatism and Islamic fundamentalism movements in Indonesia are expanding both in Islamic schools and online; these movements promote the practice of polygamy and oppose the women’s rights movement. It could eventually lead to a worsening scenario in which women may be radicalized to fight against each other.
Panupong Boontongchuay (James)
SEA Junction Program Officer
Panupong Boontongchuay has a bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences with a concentration on Southeast Asia Studies from Mahidol University International College. James is from Nakhon Si Thammarat Province, South Thailand and speaks Thai, English, Chinese and Indonesian. His passion of Southeast Asia was inspired by ex-Secretary General Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, who strived to achieve ASEAN-for-all vision. In 2018, he represented Thai youth ambassador of goodwill for the forty-fourth Ship for Southeast Asia and Japanese Youth Program (SSEAYP). He is specially interested in issues on politics and cultures of ASEAN countries and enjoy learning languages and music to better understand the region. (I thanked you very much Fabio Saini, Catharina Maria, Rosalia Sciortino for assisting in editing and reviewing this writing 😊)