Old and new hurdles for women's rights in Southeast Asia – Asia Media Centre

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Robert Bociaga is a journalist and photographer covering Southeast Asia
Violence, pay gap, period poverty, underrepresentation – the list goes on. How can women in Southeast Asia combat the old and new hurdles on the way to equality? Robert Bociaga investigates. 
COVID-19 has disproportionately harmed women and girls in Southeast Asia and also hampered efforts to promote gender equality and prevent gender-based violence.
This is because lockdowns facilitated the spread of violence against women fueling the “hidden epidemic.”
Domestic abuse hotlines saw a sharp increase in popularity, with calls in Singapore and Malaysia skyrocketing by 33 and 40 percent and Indonesia by 70 percent, respectively. Women were also more likely to be exposed to COVID-19 since they make up the bulk of healthcare professionals in Southeast Asia and are more likely to work in front-line hospitals.
In terms of women’s rights in 21st century, “there is la lot to do,” says Tashny Sukumaran, a human rights activist from Malaysia. According to her, “the largest threat to women’s rights remains the enshrinement of patriarchal values in legislation, governance and business.” 
Malaysian human rights activist Tashny Sukumaran. Image: Supplied
In Malaysia, women who have a child with a foreign partner are automatically denied the right to confer citizenship to their children born overseas, causing affected women to stay longer in abusive relationships, as they fear that their children risk statelessness. 
This needs to be addressed by the new government, Sukumaran says, adding that “women’s rights in Malaysia are currently seeing some improvement with the passing of new laws on anti-sexual harassment and anti-stalking measures.” 
Even though there are five women ministers in the 28-member Cabinet, women are still underrepresented despite controlling certain important offices. Up to this point, there had never been more than five women working in Malaysia’s Cabinet. 
Despite this, analysts and campaigners are not discouraged. For the first time, women are now occupying the three important government portfolios—the ministries of law, health, and education. 
Still, the experts believe that attempts to increase the representation of women in political decision-making should be boosted. 
For more than ten years, Malaysia has pledged to raise the number of women in all spheres of public life, but the outcomes have been not satisfying.
Experts say that even if the percentage falls short of the required 30 percent, visibility is vital, therefore it’s a good sign when more women hold prominent ministerial roles. 
The Department of Statistics Malaysia reports that while women are outpacing males in schooling and are virtually equally as likely to have access to healthcare, they are still falling behind in the labor market. Despite making up around 50 percent of the population, women in Malaysia are significantly underrepresented when it comes to political decision-making. 
To overcome all the difficulties, “a change in patriarchal and sexist mindsets [is needed],” says Sukumaran. 
Outside of Malaysia, in other Southeast Asian countries, the situation of women differs considerably. Therefore, the struggle of women elsewhere “may or may not appear the same, but none of us are free until all of us are free,” Sukumaran comments.
Women’s Leadership: ASEAN
Across the region, women occupy only 22 percent of the parliament seats, however they are frequently relegated to chairing committees on gender equality and women’s issues. 
At the same time, the percentage of female managers increased only 2 percent over the course of 20 years, from 39 percent in 2000 to 41 percent in 2022. The share in middle and senior management stands much lower at 26 percent. 
In 2010, the ASEAN nations made a commitment to gender equality by signing the Ha Noi Declaration on the Enhancement of Welfare and Development of ASEAN Women and Children. 
ASEAN Leaders’ Special Session on Women’s Empowerment. Image: Supplied
However, there is still a long way to go before there is gender equality in Southeast Asia, and discriminatory social structures continue to seriously impede the rights and opportunities of women and girls. 
In crucial areas of their lives, many legal frameworks discriminate against women and girls. Additionally, patriarchal and traditional norms still have an impact on regional opinions and behaviors, both individually and collectively. The effect on women’s and girls’ lives is profound. 
Expanding the space 
By taking to the streets, Muslim women throughout the world have become more vocal about their demands for more rights and freedoms. 
However, in Indonesia, the biggest Muslim-majority nation in the world, women, without protesting publicly, are fighting for broader acceptance of the fact that they might also become an authority on Islamic principles. 
Despite the hijab receiving a lot of attention in other places—such as Iran, where women have protested against the morality police’s enforcement of dress codes, or Europe, where Muslim women have demonstrated for their right to wear religious headscarves—in Indonesia, this divisive topic was prevented from being added in at KUPI, the congress of Indonesian female scholars.   
Instead, the gathering this year resulted in the issuing of five rulings, called fatwas, on issues such as female genital mutilation, forced marriage, abortion in cases of rape, waste management, and environmental sustainability. 
Since KUPI issued fatwas in 2017 on environmental degradation, child marriage, and sexual violence, the Indonesian government has passed legislation amending two of the issued fatwas.
KUPI, the congress of Indonesian female scholars. Image: Supplied
Also, the nation raised the age at which women can get married from 16 to 19 in 2019. And in 2022, a sexual violence law was passed which provides protections to victims of sexual violence, including those in abusive marriages.
This happened at a time when religious conservatism has gained ground despite Indonesia’s historical reputation of being moderate. Causing global reverberations, the nation changed its penal code to outlaw sex before marriage and to expand its blasphemy statute. 
Muslim women in Indonesia have proved to be successful to some extent, in reforming the country, and this might create the ground for lasting harmony in the country.
As Zainab Salbi, a Muslim writer, said, “Like life, peace begins with women. We are the first to forge lines of alliance and collaboration across conflict divides.”
– Asia Media Centre


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