What I learned about women’s rights working in Asia

What I learned about women’s rights working in Asia

I recently returned from Thailand after working on an innovative social enterprise along the Thai-Burma border, and doing communications for Asia Pacific’s leading women’s rights network. From refugee women from Burma, to Mongolian sustainable development experts, to advocates in Papua New Guinea fighting violence against women, I came across diverse groups of women determined to achieve gender justice. My experience was an intense and eye-opening foray into the complex issues of women’s rights across the region, and the world.

Women of Bagan, Burma


5 Things that stood out for me:

1.    There’s a reason they call it “women’s human rights”

Despite international human rights instruments like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, not everyone views women as human beings, and women’s rights are still relegated to “women’s issues”. Economic and political empowerment, equal pay, women’s reproductive health, land and property rights- these are just some of the areas which are often not protected, nor deemed a priority by governments and community leaders.

Getting women’s rights to the forefront of human rights dialogues continues to be a challenge, in addition to women accessing space for meaningful participation. International bodies like the UN and human rights groups around the world emphasize that “Women Rights are Human Rights” for a reason. One recent fail is the Human Rights Declaration of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), the first regional human rights declaration of its kind which had great potential to influence other regions to strengthen human rights in their area. Yet it doesn’t even uphold entrenched international standards, and instead leaves dangerous loopholes to deny human rights in the name of “public morality”. As Asia Pacific Forum on Women Law and Development points out, morality is “most commonly used against women, to control women’s bodies and sexuality”.

2.    Greater risks for women human rights defenders

Now this may sound obvious to some, given that women human rights defenders are often seen as breaking cultural and societal norms for how women should behave. Yet I didn’t know that activists are specifically targeted because of their gender. Outspoken women challenging the status quo face smear campaigns, violence and death. This can happen at the local community level, and go all the way up to high-ranking officials, such as former UN Special Rapporteurs. International groups like Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition specifically work to protect these activists and use their collective voices to draw attention to those at risk. They also call for stronger legal protections and enforcement. And this threat applies to men defending women’s rights too, like prominent Bahraini human rights activist Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, now imprisoned for life. Alarmingly, according to many organizations targeting is on the rise.

3.    Layers of discrimination against women

This feminist sociological theory of intersectionality explains how discrimination and inequality are impacted by the multiple axes of social identity. Women not only face discrimination and marginalization because of their gender, but these are further compounded by any number of factors including their race, class, sexual orientation, marital status, religion, (dis)ability, and political beliefs and practices. Discrimination is intertwined in these layers. A powerful example is the Rohingyas, a stateless people from northern Burma unrecognized by their government, and a group which the UN describes as the most oppressed people in the world. Rohingya women bear the brunt of gender, ethnic and religious discrimination. As they flee violence and discrimination, they face increased risk for sexual violence, trafficking and poverty. Recognizing this context of gender inequality means applying an intersectional approach to create systemic change.

4.    The women’s movement or “movements”?

Coming across the pluralized “women’s movements” led to questions about the differences in ideologies and mobilization that exist among women’s rights groups and activists. I had naively thought there was only a collective and cohesive group. Yet there can be diverging focus within the women’s movement itself and some see challenges for one movement to support or speak to the concerns of all. Critics argue that a social movement is by definition plural and diverse. I learned that some members of the LBT community feel left out of dialogue and advocacy in the broader movement because of their sexual or gender orientation, while some disability activists feel their voices aren’t being heard.

5.    A long way to go

While achievements for women’s rights in a year which saw the Occupy Movement and Arab Spring give me some hope, the stats on gender inequality worldwide are startling:

  • 7 out of 10 of the world’s hungry are women and girls (WFP, 2007)
  • Up to seven in 10 women are targeted for physical or sexual violence in their lifetime (UN Women, 2012)
  • About 80% of all refugees and internally displaced people are women and children (UNHCR, 2010)
  • Two-thirds of children denied primary education are girls and 75% of the world’s 876 million illiterate adults are women (Millennium Campaign, 2007)
  • 222 million women in developing nations still lack access to modern contraceptives (WHO, 2012)

And we cannot ignore more recent attempts to erode women’s rights here in North America: “legitimate rape” and other discussions to degrade women’s rights during the recent US campaign season; and legal instruments introduced in Canada, such as “The Unborn Victims of Crime Act” Bill C-484, and  Motion 312 to limit women’s reproductive rights under protective guises for the unborn.

Despite these grim examples, I have been awed both by seasoned activists and women new to the movement making real change in their communities and on global stages, despite many barriers. Their courage and perseverance inspires me to keep an optimistic perspective, and more importantly, get involved to learn more and help improve the situation for women in Canada, and globally.


Global Report on the Situation of Women Human Rights Defenders: http://www.defendingwomen-defendingrights.org/pdf/WHRD_IC_Global%20Report_2012.pdf

Different but not Divided- Women’s Perspectives on Intersectionality: http://apwld.org/pdf/Different-but-not-Divided.pdf

Sarah Matsushita is a communications and development professional for social justice. Her work includes PR and marketing for an award-winning refugee aid organization, field work at a social enterprise on the Thai Burma border and developing campaigns for the leading regional network for women’s rights in Asia. @sarahmatsushita   A Do-Over- Sustainable Social Change


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