by Dararai Ruksa, Foundation for Women (Thailand)
The panel, “Whose Morality?: Tractions and Threats in the AHRD for Women’s Human Rights,” featured the Women’s Caucus’ perspectives on the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD) and possibilities within the AHRD drafting process that can undermine women’s human rights.
In its submission to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), the Women’s Caucus highlighted human rights related to non-discrimination, substantive equality, freedom from violence, sexual and reproductive health and rights, marriage, decent work, freedom of movement, self-determination. The submission was informed by a series of consultations, including a regional workshop. The possibilities out of ASEAN’s principles of non-interference and consensus posed difficulty in drafting the submission. Hence the Women’s Caucus ensured that the submission is backed by the international human rights standards, most notably the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
One key concern is the assertion of concepts such as “ASEAN values,” “morality” and “public morals” in the ASEAN documents. Notions of morality, culture and values are largely created by structures governed by men but these are largely imposed on women’s bodies. In many cases, these have resulted to a denial of wide range of women’s human rights. Shanthi Dairiam, a former member of the CEDAW Committee asserts that this have been acknowledged by the 1993 Vienna Convention, which explicitly states that culture cannot be used to deny a woman of her rights. Moreover CEDAW itself calls governments to modify practices that negate women’s human rights.
Among the questions raised during the open forum was how women can influence ASEAN, given that ASEAN itself is generally dominated by men. Charisse Jordan of the Women’s Legal and Human Rights Bureau (WLB) said that the Women’s Caucus submission was one strategy of informing ASEAN of women’s human rights perspectives. Another is tapping informal and formal channels to dialogue with the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), the AHRD drafters and other ASEAN representatives.
Another question concerns women’s access to justice when the latter is difficult for women, especially those who are poor, migrant workers or survivors of trafficking. One recourse is to use the optional protocol of CEDAW, where complainants can elevate their issues against the state itself, for its failure to exercise due diligence.
Ivy Josiah of Women’s Aid Organization (WAO) shared that Malaysian women went out to the streets to put pressure on the government, which has also been shamed through the women’s communication with foreign embassies. The issues of Malaysia’s indigenous women have also been raised to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples. Meanwhile for Le Thi Quy of Vietnam’s Network for Empowering Women (NEW), education is the main tool to raise awareness on women and gender issues. In the Philippines, Joan Salvador of Gabriela asserts that grassroots women must be supported as having women elected in positions of power does not necessarily guarantee a better life for women.
The open forum also discussed practical alternatives that can ensure women’s exercise of their rights, including access to public services. On dealt with gender budgeting. In Cambodia, it said that there are less resources allocated for women even in education, resulting in women’s limited work opportunities. One alternative is to demand women’s participation in the national development planning. Another good practice is the 5 per cent Gender and Development budget allocation that is mandatory to all government agencies in the Philippines. Shanthi likewise recalled a case in Bangladesh, where parents decided not to send their daughters to school as it was far from the village. “The solution is very simple, building school near the village so the girls can go to school. The government has to create the environment that suit to exercise the rights,” she said.