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The South East Asia Regional Overview of Women's Issues and Concerns

Paper Presented at The Asia Pacific NGO Symposium
Kasetsart University, 31 Aug - 04 Sept 1999

This review of the Beijing Platform for Action by women citizens of South East Asia comes at a time when the region still finds itself struggling to address the debilitating national-regional effects of a recent financial meltdown and economic crisis. For some countries, such as Indonesia, the crisis led a major public awakening and process of political re-structuring or realignments. Overall the crisis nudged everyone - states and citizens - into a process of critical reflection and an accounting of where things could have gone wrong. For women citizens and the women's movement the search for alternative paradigms have become more imperative than ever before.

While this huge gathering of women is truly a cause for celebration by all, the women citizens of South East Asia came with more sober feelings and directed thoughts. We want to collectively flag - perhaps for the last time in this millenium - women's issues as critical human issues and concerns that remain as challenges for governments and citizens to address in the next cycle.

  1. The issue of political will. Governments in the sub-region can claim that they are committed to the Beijing Platform of Action and could quickly show evidences to back up such claim. Everywhere, there are women-friendly policy statements, national machineries, or national plans for women. However, all governments will also claim that the main reason for non-implementation is the question of finances, particularly at this time when national budgets are tighter and economies have either shrunk or stagnated. When times were good, government financing for women's development was already low. So much so now when things are at their worse. The lack of finances is therefore not the only and most critical factor as to why governments lack success in performance. Regardless of whether there is money or not, commitment to the advancement of women that that requires gender responsive policies, plans, programs and monitoring schemes, have always been given an insignificant slice of the pie.

  2. The issue of accountability. Governments, their leaders, agencies and bureaucracies must be accountable first and foremost to the majority of their citizens, women and men alike. Adequate legal guarantees and institutional processes must be put in place in order to actualize such accountability. The education of women, their political participation and the existence of a strong women's movement are critical factors in ensuring that governments remain accountable to the people in general and the women, in particular. We are particularly urging women leaders and activists who have engaged in a politics of institutionalization and formal power not to forget their accountability to the women's movement and the people in general. We are in power not to be integrated by it but to change politics that increasingly reflect gender equality and equity, as well as, democracy.

  3. Violence against women still widely exists and in newer forms as intensified economic hardships of families and result to their increased vulnerability. This vulnerability stems from the myriad effects of capital mobility, re-structuring of production systems and increased exploitation of labor, including child labor brought about by economic globalization. Some of these forms of economic related violence against women include sexual exploitation in prostitution and trafficking, slavery-like labor conditions facing certain migrant workers, trans-border smuggling of humans and human organs, occupation-related accidents and ailments among cheaply paid women workers in overseas factories of transnational corporations.

  4. Violence against women at the personal level has also become more intense as a result of patriarchal backlash reaction of individual men who are threatened by the women's movement. Moreover, violence against women linked to ethnic hate and other cultural discrimination has been widely documented in areas where political and cultural intolerance resulted to open violence by armed groups and the state. Moreover, homophobia continues to be manifested in religious intolerance, family rejection, negative representation in the media, physical violence and abuse, as well as, invisibility.

  5. The adoption of micro credit program as a response to women's poverty is grossly inadequate and at best could only be palliative in relation to practical needs. Women's credit systems ought to be upscaled and sufficiently provided with support infrastructure and interventions such as skills training, market support, including advocacy for sharing for housework between women and men, so that women's credit can truly become an alternative source of financing and entrepreneurship. It should be noted that micro-level interventions aimed at alleviating women's poverty are often not linked to gender analysis at the macroeconomic level that can pave the way for meeting women's strategic needs. Sadly, this leads to a disjointed effort at women's economic development and at worse, certain gender blind impacts of the macro-economy overturn the small benefits gained in the micro level.

  6. Budget allocation for social services, social safety nets and social insurance system remain insignificant compared to the scope of the problems of maternal mortality, women's morbidity, child mortality and morbidity, and the lack of specialised services for women. Increased pressures on women to assume responsibility for the family's health and well being has emerged in the face of government's privatization of health and other basic services. Male responsibility and male participation in reproductive health has been misinterpreted and translated into calls for reproductive health services for men at a time when reproductive health care policies, programs and services are either still not in place or in need to be improved upon. Men are themselves saying that change is taking place but which men and to what extent?

  7. Food security and women's livelihoods are threatened by the onslaught of massive land conversion to industrial estates, cash crop agriculture, and big development projects such as dams. The re-directing by government of economic development towards agriculture will not only ensure poor rural & indigenous women are provided with income opportunities but also serve to promote women farmers' environmentally sustainable farming practices and life/cultural systems.

In ending, it is clear there is a need for a re-examination and re-direction of national development and their society's well-being away from the dictates of the market and toward a perspective that includes the following:

Reviewing the Beijing Platform for Action can become a real opportunity for women to participate in this process of collective re-imagination of the human, social, political and economic across communities, states, regions & the world. We have much to gain and nothing to lose but our dis-empowerment!

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