MEDIA RELEASE: Women’s NGOs in SEA oppose “public morality” in the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration

PRESS RELEASE – 10 September 2012
Contact persons:
PH: Jelen Paclarin, jelen.paclarin@gmail.com, +63 9175273377
ID: Rena Herdiyani, rena_herdiyani@yahoo.com, +62812982014732
TH/ Secretariat: Nina Somera, nina@apwld.org, +66 8116210732 (TH),  +63 9218122066 (PH), +63 9395499654 (PH)
Photo by Nur Judy Abdullah, Council of Social Welfare, Brunei Darussalam

Manila, Philippines – Women’s groups under the Southeast Asia Women’s Caucus on the ASEAN (Women’s Caucus) raised the alarm on moves to put “public morality” in the draft of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD) as this will further endanger the lives of women in Southeast Asia with the “morality” standards already being exercised by the dominant patriarchal and traditional beliefs in each ASEAN member state.

Jelen Paclarin, Executive Director of Women’s Legal and Human Rights Bureau is worried that this will justify the interference of the Catholic Church in the deliberation of the Reproductive Health bill in Philippine Congress.

“The church will waste no time in raising morality issue as a weapon in every possible measure as they are doing now to block this bill that aims to protect the reproductive health rights of Filipino women,” Paclarin said.

Paclarin also discussed Karen Vertido’s rape case that was dismissed by the local court because of the Judge’s opinion that the victim “did not escape when she appeared to have had so many opportunities to do so.” It was also believed that Vertido, a mother of two children did not fit the usual profile of a rape-victim survivor, who is expected to be young and innocent.

Vertido was raped by businessman, Jose Custodio as Vertido was then the Executive Director of the Davao Chamber of Commerce. The decision of the local court was criticized and overturned by the United Nations through the Optional Protocol of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

“The acquittal of Custodio came from clear gender biases and gender-based ‘morality’, myths and misconceptions as espoused by the Judge of the local court and this clearly violated Vertido’s rights. This was affirmed by the CEDAW Committee that ruled the Philippine government also violated a legal obligation to respect, protect, promote and fulfill Vertido’s right and the right of all Filipino women to non-discrimination, including the judiciary and other state agencies,” Paclarin explained.

According to the Women’s Caucus, the inclusion of “public morality” in the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration poses great challenge to CEDAW, which is meant to strengthen women’s human rights and of which all ASEAN member states are party to.

Other members of the Women’s Caucus from Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia and Brunei Darussalam raised similar potential problems of “public morality” in the AHRD.

According to Usa Lerdsrisuntad, Program Director of Thailand’s Foundation for Women, “public morality” failed to protect women in prostitution, precisely because this contradicted Thai’s moral code.

“Although some aspects of prostitution have been decriminalized, women engaged in this practice, particularly women migrants from other parts of Mekong, remain vulnerable when dealing with the police. The police arbitrarily exercise their own sense of morality and this leads to human rights violation when used as a standard for public law enforcement. In fact, one case involves a police who arrested a woman for solicitation but this was because the woman was wearing short dress and high heels,” Lerdsrisuntad explained.

Thailand has a draft gender equality law that said to provide equal protection from discrimination and access to resources. However, the bill exempts protection on certain grounds such as religion. “The AHRD must set the standard, ensuring non-discrimination on all grounds, including standards of morality of dominant groups and belief systems,” Lerdsrisuntad added.

Meanwhile, the interpretation of Shariah Law governing Muslims in Indonesia and Malaysia has restricted women’s freedom of expression and control over their bodies.

Rena Herdiyani, Executive Director of a women’s collective, Kalyanamitra in Indonesia cited 207 policies at the national and provincial levels, where moral and religious nuances deprived women of the rights to protection and legal identities, and women suffering the most from a lasting social stigma.

As Aceh adopted a local regulation based on Syariah Law (callled “Qanun”), Muslim women  are obliged to use veil and long dress, otherwise they risk being arrested by Shariah police. Another Aceh regulation is khalwat where an unmarried woman and a man, who are found in secluded places are arrested and caned in public. They are punished by being forced to walk nude around a village, doused in sewage, or being forced to get married.

Indonesia’s law on pornography criminalizes women who are accused of performing acts that are considered obscene. Herdiyani said without clear definition of obscenity, women who are working in cafes late at night can easily be targeted by this law.

“The law on pornography even became a setback for the enforcement of women’s rights in Indonesia.  Though it aims to protect women and children, this law has been used to control women’s bodies and sexualities, threatening women’s freedom of expression by subjective interpretations of morality,” Herdiyani explained.

Yu Ren Chung, Program Officer of Women’s Aid Organization in Malaysia cited how “public morality” under Syariah laws was used by the state in policing Muslims in his country, citing indecency, liwat (sodomy), musahaqah (lesbianism), drinking alcohol, khalwat (intimate acts of unmarried couples), zina (sex out of wedlock), and not observing fasting during the fasting month as acts violating these laws.

“These laws discriminate on the basis of gender identity as the Syariah Criminal offences include any male person who, in any public place, wears a woman’s attire and poses as a woman for immoral purposes and shall on conviction be liable to a fine not exceeding one thousand ringgit or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year or both,” Yu said.

Malaysia’s civil laws are also used to police non-Muslims. Yu shared an incident in March 2012 when three women were charged for indecent behavior for doing pole dancing in a nightclub in Seremban. The women were fined RM25 each and charged for allegedly being “dressed scantily”.

The Women’s Caucus has been engaging with the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), the body that has been tasked to draft the AHRD. The group sent to AICHR its first submission on October 21, 2011 and an addendum on June 22, 2012.

The addendum further argued for women’s human rights which were deemed controversial by AICHR. These issues include sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), marriage and family life, and citizenship, among others. More importantly, it argued for the removal of “public morality” as a limitation of human rights.

On its second addendum to be sent to 2nd regional consultation of AICHR with civil society on the AHRD on September 12 and its 9th meeting on September 13-14 in Manila, the Women’s Caucus reiterated its stance that “public morality” has not been defined in international human rights standards. This can be found here: https://womenscaucusonasean.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/wc-submission-on-ahrd-addendum-2-final.pdf

“The interpretation of public morality in our lives has been largely based on the dominant political, cultural and religious regimes. This has been used as a ground in limiting human rights, discriminating against women and girls and other minorities such as lesbian, gays, bisexuals and transgenders. Worse, when used in concepts of chastity, virginity, the crimes against persons such as rape and other sexual abuses have become crimes against honor even in conflict and post-conflict situations,” Women’s Caucus said in their submission to AICHR.

The group recommended the omission of “public morality” in the draft AHRD in line with Article 5 of CEDAW which requires the transformation of cultural tradition and practices that have been oppressive to women and girls. The AHRD is set to be finalized and approved in November 2012. (END)

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