A look at ASEAN Declaration on Violence against Women and Violence Against Children

The purpose of this brief analysis is to assist the reader to understand the positive points and the shortcomings of the ASEAN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Elimination of Violence Against Children adopted at the 23rd ASEAN Summit on 9 October 2013.  Principally drafted  by the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC), this declaration could give hope amidst disappointments. Below is the quick look at the DEVAW and EVAC.

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Violence against women and children is a bitter reality that women and children in ASEAN face every day, despite ASEAN Member States’ commitment to human rights. Although all the Member States have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and are bound by the 2004 ASEAN Declaration on Violence Against Women, enjoyment of women’s human rights is yet to be realised by many women in ASEAN.

At the 23rd ASEAN Summit on 9 October 2013, ASEAN Member States adopted another declaration: the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the Elimination of Violence Against Children in ASEAN.

…it encourages ASEAN Member States to report on efforts to eliminate violence against women and children through the Universal Periodic Review Process, in which notably the ACWC is to assist where necessary.

Principally drafted by the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC), this declaration expresses ASEAN Member States’ “common resolve to eliminate violence against women and violence against children in the region”. While it is welcoming to see ASEAN countries’ commitment to human rights, the Declaration appears to be held back by ASEAN’s brand of human rights which does not meet international human rights standards.

This issue specific declaration follows the adoption in 2012 of ASEAN’s overarching human rights document, the “ASEAN Human Rights Declaration”, which was heavily criticised by civil society groups. Similarly this new Declaration falls short in some areas. Positive provisions were left out and negative provisions were left it. Nevertheless, there are positive elements as well.

One specific achievement of this declaration is that it encourages ASEAN Member States to report on efforts to eliminate violence against women and children through the Universal Periodic Review Process, in which notably the ACWC is to assist where necessary. The Declaration also tasks the ACWC to “promote the implementation of the Declaration and review its progress”. This could include assisting with national plans of implementation, for example. This gives the ACWC a stronger mandate.

Forms of violence and marginalised women

The declaration recognises that violence against women and violence against children can occur “in public or private (including cyber space)”. It also includes a long list of specific forms of violence and vulnerable groups to be addressed by Member States, including “domestic violence, women and children who are sexually exploited, women and children with disabilities, women and children living with and affected by HIV and AIDS, women and children in conflict with laws, cyber pornography and cyber prostitution, trafficking in women and children, women and children in disasters, women and children in armed conflict, women and children in refugee camps, women and children on the move, stateless women and children, migrant women and children, women and children belonging to ethnic and/or indigenous groups, children in early marriage, physical abuse of children, bullying, discrimination against women and children in mass and social media, and others”.

While this list is extensive, there are some notable exclusions. The Declaration does not include explicit provisions to address sexual harassment, which is recognised as a form of violence against women in General Recommendation 19 of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Neither does the Declaration include protections for sexual minorities, as covered by General Recommendation 28 of the Committee, who are commonly targeted with violence. Women who face violence due to land grabbing or forced eviction, or as a result of environmental degradation, are also not recognised.

The Declaration fails to recognise the due diligence framework, necessary if ASEAN is to respond to the multiple forms of violence against women it noted. And it also attempts to address both violence against women and violence against children in the same declaration, even though the two issues are very different.

Modifying social and cultural patterns

The Declaration also recognises that ASEAN Member States shall take measures “to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of inferiority and superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.”

This provision, modelled after article 5 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence Against Women (CEDAW), is welcomed. But somewhat contradictorily, though not surprisingly, the Declaration includes the phrase “taking into consideration the regional and national contexts bearing in mind the different historical, political socio-cultural, religious, legal and economic backgrounds in the region” as a qualifier in promoting and protecting human rights.

This qualifier appears in prior ASEAN human rights documents, and goes against the understanding of human rights as universal. It should not have been included.

International human rights mechanisms

We are glad to see the Declaration acknowledges that it should play a complementary role to existing international mechanisms, noting that ASEAN Member States commit to strengthen national mechanisms in “implementing, monitoring and reporting the implementation of the Concluding Observations and Recommendations of CEDAW, CRC and other Treaty Bodies as well as the accepted recommendations under the Universal Periodic Review Process of the United Nations Human Rights Council related to the elimination of all forms of violence against women and violence against children”.

This Declaration is not ASEAN’s first declaration on violence against women, and it may not be the last. The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women in the ASEAN Region was introduced in 2004. And the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) is aiming to initiate a convention on the elimination of violence against women.

Important questions can be raised on the relationship between these regional documents, and whether or not regional documents will actually help in realising women’s human rights in ASEAN, given the existence of international conventions like CEDAW. Worse, regional documents risk introducing standards that are lower than international standards.

Introducing regional declarations and conventions could also add redundant reporting requirements on countries already struggling to meet their current obligations under international conventions like CEDAW, which all ASEAN countries have ratified.

The role of civil society

The Declaration incorporated several recommendations from civil society, including from the Women’s Caucus. The recognition of various forms of violence, inclusion of gender responsive planning and budget, and removal from the final declaration of “balancing between rights and responsibilities” as a qualifier to promoting and protecting human rights, for example, are welcomed.

Importantly, the Declaration recognises the role of civil society in prevention and responses to violence against women and children requiring states to “create an enabling environment for the participation of women and children, including victims/survivors, in the prevention and elimination…

On this it could be pointed out that the Declaration’s drafting process itself could have been more inclusive of CSOs. Although the ACWC accepted written feedbacks, there were no dedicated regional consultations with civil society to specifically discuss the Declaration, and only a few national ACWC representatives conducted national consultations. Nevertheless, to look ahead, engagement with CSOs and women’s groups should be targeted post adoption of this declaration.

With the completion of the Declaration, the Southeast Asia Women’s Caucus on ASEAN urges the ACWC to fulfill its obligations towards the realisation of all human rights, including the human rights and fundamental freedoms of women, children and all marginalised and vulnerable peoples, in accordance with international human rights standards. We also hope that the shortfalls in the Declaration can be amended in the near future.

Efforts should now be focused on implementing the Declaration, in accordance with the principles of CEDAW, including with meaningful partnership with civil society. The Women’s Caucus will continue to support the ACWC towards this end.

For more information:

Sunee Singh: sunee@apwld.org

Yu Ren Chung: renchung.wao@gmail.com

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