Women need to thrive, not just survive

There was one significant photograph missing in the lobby of the United Nations (UN) Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) hall in Bangkok where an important regional review of the Beijing plus 20 goals was under way from November 17-20. While many women leaders in the region, including former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, were represented, Thailand’s first woman Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, ousted in a military coup in May, didn’t find a place. The Thai Deputy Prime Minister for Social Affairs, Yongyuth Yuthavong, in his inaugural address, confessed to being the odd man out in a women’s meeting just a few years ago, but today the scene is different; there were more men in the room, he said. Yes, there are certainly more men for gender equality meetings now but there are also many elephants in the room.

Twenty years after the Beijing Declaration and 35 years after the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was adopted, some countries like Iran don’t recognise feminist organisations, Russia has a problem with sex education, India conveniently denies armed conflict and caste, and everyone is reluctant to acknowledge sexual rights for women, differences in sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI).

As a result, the Asia Pacific ministerial declaration on gender equality and women’s empowerment, which was accepted in November, was a tame affair. Peace is inextricably linked with equality between men and women, according to one of the critical areas of concern in the Beijing Platform for Action. Yet only six countries in the region have development national action plans on women, peace and security. Survivors of armed conflict are still fighting for transitional justice with very little mechanisms in place for post-conflict situations and also for internally displaced persons. The Indian government, backed by Indonesia, managed to get the words ‘armed conflict’ out of the final declaration, the second important change it succeeded in making without much ado. That caste has deep implications, especially on women, was lost on the Indian government and it preferred the term ‘social origin’ instead; this was not opposed by any other country. The term ‘sexual orientation’ was replaced with ‘men and women in their diversity,’ angering activists who had fought for SOGI to be recognised.

A global concern

Two major UN meetings to review the Beijing Declaration and Sustainable Development Goals are coming up in 2015. Right from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, gender equality has been a global concern. The Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 and the Declaration and Platform for Action set the global standard for promoting women’s issues.

Reviews by governments of the Beijing goals 20 years later reveal many shortcomings. The UN Secretary General’s campaign ‘Unite To End Violence Against Women’ cites data to show that 50 per cent of sexual assaults in the world take place against girls who are under 16 years of age, 603 million women live in countries where domestic violence is not considered a crime, between 15 and 76 per cent of women are targeted for physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime, and 60 million girls are married before they are 18 years old.

On the positive side, a significant change in the last 10 years has been the increasing focus on involving men as partners in gender equality. The MenEngage programme and the HeforShe movement are some of the initiatives by UN Women to rope in men to speak up against violence and be partners rather than adversaries in the process. Many countries in the Asia Pacific region are only now conducting studies and coming up with policies. Nicolas Burniat, deputy representative at the Multi Country Office for the Pacific at UN Women, says, “There is a recognition that we need to spend much more energy on this issue. There is a broader community realisation that gender equality cannot be achieved without involving men and boys, and in the last ten years the region has seen laws passed against violence and for stronger political commitment.”

The Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, one of the two intergovernmental bodies, elected a woman as a secretary general. The Pacific region, which has reported a high rate of violence against women, is now realising the power of its collective voice on gender.

Speaking in a collective voice

However, attitudes to violence in a region where communities are matriarchal are hampered by kinship ties. Abacca Anjain-Madisson, chief of the community division from the government of Marshall Islands, says even recognising that violence exists is a challenge. The first study of women and violence in the Islands reported that one in two women experienced partner violence and only ten per cent were able to seek help. When women complained to the police or the church or community leaders, it was found that the violence was related in “some way to their husbands and [the leaders] refused to take cognisance of complaints.” She added: “We are taking ownership of the data and will soon have a gender policy.”

Climate change impacts, the rights of indigenous people and the vulnerability of women emerged as major issues at the conference. Land grabbing by corporates and struggles over land ownership were also identified as critical areas. There is a recognition that the region can speak in a collective voice on gender just as it did on climate change as part of the Alliance of Small Island States, Mr Burniat said. Even while there is progress in addressing violence against women in the region, promoting leadership and political participation of women, improving gender parity in primary school net enrolment and attendance rates and parity in secondary school education, high rates of violence, lower work participation, and threats to health and maternal mortality also persist. Roberta Clarke, UN Women regional director, asks, “Why are we underachieving so consistently?” She called for a reaffirmation of political will and financial commitment to deal with gender inequality.

According to ESCAP, for every hundred employed men, there are only 62 employed women in the Asia Pacific region, the average wage gap is 10 to 30 per cent, and women are still concentrated in low-paid, low-status and low-skilled work. The Asia Pacific region’s child sex ratio, which is in favour of boys, is one of the highest in the world. As a result of this, gender-biased practices including prenatal sex selection exist. Yet, comprehensive sex education is nonexistent in many countries and the ministerial declaration took a retrograde step by not recognising the sexual rights of women, which was an important right contained in the Beijing Declaration. In 17 Asia Pacific countries, less than 10 cent of seats in Parliament are held by women.

As the world is looking to set new goals post 2015, financial and political commitments assume more importance than ever. Governments have to step up investment in gender equality and do more than recognise that it is an important area for improvement. As Laisema Ralika, an official from the Fiji Ministry of Education asks, “If it’s not now, then when?”

Women in the region and in the rest of the world are demanding their rights, already guaranteed to them in various global and national instruments of law. Instead of strengthening that, governments are whittling them away in some cases. “A very big part of the women’s agenda is that financing is the key to the post-2015 development goals and there is a need to step up existing commitments. Gender inequality is the scourge of the 21st century, and it is a systemic change that is called for,” says Noelene Nabulivou from Diverse Voices and Action for Equality. Women, as Marshallese poet Kathy Jetnil Kjiner aptly sums up, “need to do more than just survive, we deserve to thrive.”

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Printable version | Apr 13, 2021 2:38:49 PM |

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