This is an op-ed by ARROW’s Executive Director, Sivananthi Thanenthiran, published in The Jakarta Post
Next year, the global community will mark the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW) and adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action ( 1995 ).
Next year will also see the five-year milestone of the Sustainable Development Goals. 2020 is therefore a pivotal year for the accelerated realization of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls everywhere.
In the lead-up to the global 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, the Asia-Pacific intergovernmental review is being held this week in Bangkok. Three hundred representatives from diverse women’s NGOs, including 75 young feminists, from across Asia and the Pacific region, gathered to review and recalibrate strategies towards achieving gender-just societies as envisioned in 1995 Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA).
Gender equality requires governments and societies to address not only discrimination against women, but also to dismantle structural barriers, systemic inequalities, social norms and institutions that perpetuate discrimination.
Gender equality cannot be fostered in a vacuum. We have to recognize that across the Asia-Pacific region there are forces and trends at work that can reverse the gains in gender equality if not addressed strategically enough.
One is the climate emergency which sees a substantial part of our region vulnerable to climate change induced droughts, floods, frequent storms and typhoons, and sea-rise levels. Climate change exacerbates already existing inequalities including income inequalities and gender inequalities.
The map of poverty and the map of areas affected most by climate change overlap frequently, hence the poorest communities are the ones most affected by climate change. In these communities, girls often are forced to drop out of schools in order to gather water, food and firewood for their families or are married off young to protect them from economic insecurity and sexual violence in these vulnerable communities.
Women and girls also face heightened threats of violence within their homes during these insecure times and from sexual violence, as they have to travel further and longer to gather water, food and firewood. Gender norms prevent girls from learning essential skills such as swimming, which would enable them to survive during floods.
A number of islands in our region such as the Pacific island of Tuvalu — see the seas at the doorsteps of their citizen’s houses. The Global Climate Risk Index of 2019 identifies the Asia-Pacific as the region that will be most affected by climate change. And since our countries are close neighbors, the spill over effects across the region will be a significant driver of political contentions.
The second is the rising religious conservatism across countries and borders. The intertwining of national identity with ethnic and religious identity sees persecution of minorities across key countries in the region. This does not bode well for peace and security in the region.
Interestingly, one country’s majority is another country’s minority — and this risks international relations and diplomacy. Wherever conflict occurs, women and girls are at the most risk. Women rarely drive conflict, yet they suffer disproportionately. Sexual violence is rampant during times of conflict. Poverty among women is high due to loss of employment and destruction of assets, and a crumbling of services such as health and education and social networks that support women.
Third is, of course, the shifting geopolitics in the region rearranging traditional policy and diplomacy leanings due to the struggle for power over the region between the United States and China. This will continue to hamper economic growth and development.
Whither ASEAN in such a situation? These years call our regions to think differently about our societies and what development means to us. How can we make the shift to a more inclusive, people-centred development? How can we transform our economies to recognise and contain the damage we do to out environments? How can we incorporate a thinking of enriching each other rather than impoverishing each other?
ASEAN as a regional bloc has endorsed three human rights conventions among these the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). ASEAN also has unequivocally supported the Beijing Platform for Action.
This gives us a clue: If we can put women and girls at the center of the development agenda we have the potential of transforming the region. Of the 650 million people in the region, one in three are below the age of 19, and a majority of people in the working age demographic.
If we are able to ensure the full participation of women in the labour force, replete with the rights and protections afforded to workers, including attention to women’s rights in employment — there will be a significant economic transition in the region.
There is a substantial labour force participation gap in all countries in the region — highest in the Philippines at 73.9 percent for males compared to 46.2 percent for females, followed by Indonesia (83 percent vs. 55.4 percent) and Malaysia (79.5 percent vs. 53.7 percent).
This calls our governments to change society’s mind-sets on the roles of women in our society, and provide programmes to support women’s economic participation. This can include provision of government sponsored quality childcare, flexible work hours, recognition and formalization of the care work sector, recognizing single mothers as heads of households, making efforts to reduce sexual harassment and sexual violence in the workplace and on the way to work, educating citizens on sharing the household work burden.
Ensuring legislation that recognises women as equal citizens, and then ensuring follow through with policies and programmes, which ensure equality, will go a long way to making systemic discrimination a thing of the past.
For this leaders in our region must have a bold vision — beyond that of the religious conservatives who sit alongside them in our parliaments who consistently undermined efforts to advance the status of women and girls — even in simple issues like early marriage.
Freeing women from deep-rooted discrimination and harmful norms and practices requires political will from our governments. One that we must all commit to if we are to bring deep and meaningful change to our societies.