All women were seen; all women were heard
A small attempt to summarize today’s discussions
The Asia-Pacific Civil Society Forum on Beijing+20 held eighteen simultaneous workshops today touching upon issues that affect women’s human rights and their empowerment in the region. The discussions in the workshops will forge the recommendations that civil society will give to governments in the upcoming inter-governmental meeting—UN ESCAP Asia and Pacific Conference on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment: Beijing+20 review—that will be held on November 17-20 in Bangkok.
Cross-cutting issues, such as race, class, ability, age, HIV status, and sexual orientation and gender identity were touched upon in most of the workshops. People belonging to marginalized communities also had their own space to provide recommendations.
Women with different abilities talked about the need to empower women in their own setting and involve rural women with disabilities in their advocacy work. “Women with disabilities were there (in Beijing), but there was no discussion about their rights,” noted a participant from Mainland China. So that this does not happen again, participants mentioned the importance of including the rights of persons with disabilities in the governments’ recommendations.
Lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LBT) women reiterated the need for States to recognise gender diversity in order to achieve gender equality. They also called on women’s movements in the region to commit and reaffirm their commitment to the rights of LBT women. Activists expressed the need to change homophobic attitudes and to overcome existing discrimination in the work place, in schools, and in health services.
Women living with HIV also noted the need to ensure access to health services, in particular for young people and for drug users. “States should ensure that every hospital accepts women living with HIV,” said one of the speakers. “There are no services for young people for harm reduction or shelters,” added another speaker. Similarly, issues around sexual and reproductive health and rights were discussed. The message on this issue was clear, “There is no equality for women without women’s bodily autonomy.” This means, among other things, access to safe and legal abortion and the removal of mandatory HIV and drug testing.
Women couched their recommendations on all of these issues on women’s human rights. This itself showed the importance of the workshop that discussed how the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA) fits in with the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). “It is important to say clearly and explicitly that the BPfA should be pursued in a rights framework as part of the implementation strategy of the BPfA,” reiterated one of the participants.
Large number of the discussions today revolved around women and the economy, where many women’s issues intersect. These included concerns around migration, rural and indigenous women’s rights to land and development, the situation of informal workers, and the impact of trade agreements on women. Women also discussed issues related to women and the environment and how they intersect with the economy.
Participants discussed women’s mobility across borders and highlighted how poverty leads to women seeking better opportunities in other countries. This has caused the feminization of migration and brought about questions around how safe migration is for women. Women mentioned the paternalistic approaches used by States to protect women from forced migration. These include travel restrictions based on women’s age and the need for women to seek consent from a male member of the family to obtain a passport. “Migration should be an informed choice; it should not be forced,” concluded one of the participants.
In some cases, however, women do not have a choice. Such is the situation of women refugees which was also highlighted today. Only 20 countries in the Asia-Pacific have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and there is a lack of national legislation and legal frameworks. Refugee women also face similar concerns in relation to their economic rights as migrant women. Participants were concerned about the existing government policies from both countries of origin and receiving countries that promote the export of labor. “There is a sense of pride by the governments when they announce the number of workers sent abroad,” noted one activist.
On migration issues, domestic work continues to be a topic of importance in the region, due to the increasing number of women in this line of work. “Domestic work keeps elements of slavery,” stated one woman. Regression in rights is not uncommon. In the past, contracts for live-in domestic workers included “private” accommodation, then “free” accommodation, now it is down to “suitable” accommodation. An activist said she once got asked, “Should I be OK with my employer asking me to share a room with two boys?” The boys were 12 and 17 years old.
Land rights, development, trade, and investment
Land grabbing is a concern for women and particularly affects indigenous and rural women. “Land grabbing is a violation. It is eroding our livelihood, it denies land for women; land grabbers are like big corporations,” stated a woman from India. Similarly, state and privately lead investment and development projects affect ancestral lands and can lead to harassment and violence against indigenous and rural communities. “For us there is no development when [the governments] continue to harass our communities and our women leaders and when they do not respect our rights to self-determination and control over our land and territories,” said an indigenous woman from the Philippines. “We are the indigenous women that safeguard our land for generations, and we should be the ones to decide on the use of our ancestral land,” she added. Women also highlighted the importance of collective action and collective forming as a way to respond to these issues and achieve development gender justice.
In South and East Asia informal employment makes up approximately 60% of the non-agricultural work. Women in informal sectors are subject to situations of discrimination and violence. In most countries in the region sex work is not considered work and States do not consider the contribution of sex workers to the economy. Women working on work such as the entertainment industry are arrested without reason and are unable to unionize.
Women’s human rights are also affected by free trade agreements. In Beijing 1995 “women’s organizations were already raising the impact of liberalization, privatization, and globalization on women,” remembered one participant. Yet, still today women are unable to take part in the negotiations of these agreements. Participation of women is vital since, as one woman said, “One agreement can undo years of work of the BPfA.”
On this issue, participants noted the need to bridge the divide of women and the environment with other social issues. For instance, women are unable to participate in the extraction of fisheries, which impacts their access to resources. Others noted the need for the environment movement to be politicized with human rights in order to bring equality for women. “There should be pro-people environments,” one woman said. Activists also mentioned the need for land reforms to cope with the environmental crisis.
Women all agreed that leadership among women and opportunities to meaningfully and effectively participate in political scenarios around economy issues is crucial.
Violence against women and women in the armed conflict were also discussed in the workshops
Participants mentioned the need to “break the silence on the issue of violence against girls,” and noted the existence of compounded violence against women with disabilities. Women also noted the existence of violence based on gender against women with different sexual orientations and gender identities. Participants noted the lack of response by the state to this violence and the backlash in their own communities. “People saw that you were beaten and people want to beat you more. I say that having experience violence myself,” said a participant from the Pacific region.
Violence is also present in other situations, such as forced marriages taking place in Kyrgizstan and against women seeking access to safe abortion. Women are also subject to violence in situations of armed conflict. In these situations women agreed that there is a need to provide recognition to women survivors, accompanied by support and rehabilitation.
There is also a need to meet survivors social and economic needs, since women can become “long-term economic victims.” Women identified as a priority the need to fight impunity, including by providing safe spaces for women survivors of violence to access justice. Activists also noted the need to put an end to militarization, as this increases situations of violence against women.
“Women are to be seen, but not to be heard,” said one participant while discussing issues around women and power. Today, in the CSO Forum, all women were seen and all women were heard.
To women organizations and activists out there who are unable to be here, please let us know through twitter (#APCSOB20) what issues were not covered and what your recommendations are!