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Violence against women and girls slips through ASEAN legal cracks

Activists push for regional enforcement as COVID fuels abuse 'shadow pandemic'

A shelter for abused women in Dawei, Myanmar, in 2019: ASEAN has sought to address high rates of violence against women, but activists say there is still a long way to go.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- K, a refugee from Myanmar, was 13 years old when she came to Mae Sot, a border town in Thailand. After finding domestic work in a local household, her employer's sister forced K to work in her massage parlor, where she was raped by older men.

K's story is among the testimonials of female survivors of sexual violence compiled by Weaving Women's Voices in Southeast Asia, or WEAVE, a network of lawyers and women's rights activists. The group is lobbying not only national governments to close legal gaps in laws against sexual violence, but also the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to enforce regional standards for women's rights and set protocols for cross-border cases like K's.

Thai authorities charged the employer's sister with child trafficking under local laws. But the men who assaulted K went free, without even a police investigation.

Halfway through the decade covered by ASEAN's current action plan on eliminating violence against women, and as the world marks International Women's Day, efforts to change the system are very much a work in progress.

Southeast Asia's stringent coronavirus lockdowns have contributed to what the United Nations calls a "shadow pandemic" of violence against women. Domestic violence helplines in Singapore and Malaysia have registered an increase in calls of 33% and 40%, respectively, over the past year of economic distress, health concerns and home confinement. UN Women found that lockdowns in Cambodia and Indonesia have affected women's access to shelters and psychosocial support.

Long before COVID-19, the prevalence of intimate partner violence against women in Southeast Asia was the highest in the world at 37.7%, according to the World Health Organization. Although all member states have ratified the U.N. convention on discrimination against women, ASEAN's principle of noninterference in national affairs appears to have extended to women's rights -- with a widespread attitude that sexual and domestic violence is a private family matter.

Even Indonesia, which hosts the ASEAN headquarters in Jakarta, does not walk the talk on violence against women, said lawyer Rena Herdiyani.

"The government talks about human rights in ASEAN but implementation is lacking, especially for victims of sexual violence," said Herdiyani, vice chair of Kalyanamitra, an Indonesian women's rights organization in the WEAVE network.

Rape is the only form of sexual violence defined by Indonesia's penal code, Herdiyani explained, and punishes only penetration.

"We have laws regulating marital rape and domestic violence, but many law enforcers and our society still think marital rape between a wife and husband is impossible," Herdiyani said. "They think it is the women's role to fulfill the sexual needs of her husband."

In Cambodia, the country's own Ministry of Women's Affairs also found that violence against women is widely accepted and tolerated. "It is rooted in social and cultural attitudes and norms that privilege men over women, and boys over girls," the ministry wrote in its 2014 gender assessment.

Attitudes that perpetuate misogyny can also discourage women from reporting sexual violence. A survey of sexual violence survivors by Silaka, a Cambodian women's rights group in the WEAVE network, found that only 19% of respondents took their cases to local authorities.

"Here, there is a norm that if something is happening at home, you should not report, otherwise it causes family shame," said Reasey Seng, Silaka's coordinator for ASEAN affairs.

Even in the Philippines, where a deeply entrenched women's movement has produced some of the region's most progressive laws against sexual violence, survivors can still suffer insensitivity from first responders and the legal system.

"It's stated in the law how they should respond, with care and sensitivity, but something else happens," said Jelen Paclarin, an advocate with the Women's Legal and Human Rights Bureau in Manila.

According to Paclarin, survivors often feel that only high-profile cases filed by female celebrities are pursued by law enforcement, or cases are trivialized if the police see several complaints about a single perpetrator.

Herdiyani, Paclarin's WEAVE colleague in Indonesia, has been working since 2004 with civil society groups to pass a bill on the elimination of sexual violence against women. The bill would expand the legal definition of sexual violence beyond rape by penetration to cover nine different forms including forced marriage and forced abortion. Standards are also set for survivor protection and recovery.

Jelen Paclarin, an advocate with the Women's Legal and Human Rights Bureau in Manila, speaks to reporters in front of a sign that reads "Include women in ASEAN." (Photo courtesy of Women's Legal and Human Rights Bureau)

"The conservative parties in parliament don't understand the substance of the bill we're proposing, but they reject the bill because they think there is a danger of promoting LGBT relationships," Herdiyani said.

"We've already been struggling for gender equality for a long time, and until now they still don't understand gender," she added. "For marginalized groups like LGBT and women with disabilities and indigenous women and girls, they still have very far to go to get equal rights in Indonesia."

Beyond national laws, at the top of WEAVE's wish list is an ASEAN judicial mechanism for human rights claims, similar to the European Court of Human Rights.

"In the [European Union], if you cannot seek redress on the national level and you feel that the national level actors are in cahoots with each other, you can go to the regional level," said Paclarin.

While ASEAN has an intergovernmental commission on human rights, known as AICHR, it can only make recommendations, not rulings.

"The problem is the ASEAN principle of noninterference -- you can't interfere in issues of national concern," said Paclarin.

WEAVE and its peer groups, however, point to the ASEAN convention against human trafficking as a potential regional model for addressing sexual violence. The convention lays out procedures for member states to collaborate on cross-border trafficking.

The current ASEAN action plan calls for a regional referral system for sexual violence, including new forms on cyberspace that transcend borders.

"When it comes to human rights violations, I don't believe the noninterference principle applies," said Seng. "If women in Cambodia or Brunei are facing the same issue, it is a regional issue."

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