The heads of the 10 Asean states and partner countries met early this week to discuss issues that bedevil the Asia-Pacific: the threat of terrorism from extremist groups, North Korea’s nuclear missile tests, trade barriers and foreign investments, climate change and environmental disasters, and transnational crimes, among others.
Sidelined in the hectic run-up to the customary right-over-left handclasp and “class picture” were issues that affect half of the population in these states: the women.
To be sure, a labor accord has been signed that would guarantee fair treatment of and protection for migrant workers — including at least 212,000 overseas Filipino workers in the region, most of them women.
But so many pressing issues have been virtually ignored by Asean, as if the past 50 years did not see more women pushed onto perilous paths as they struggle to make a living under increasingly difficult circumstances.
As the Women’s Legal and Human Rights Bureau said in a letter to the editor on Tuesday, “what is there to celebrate when sexual violence has persisted with impunity in Southeast Asia over [the past] 50 years?”
According to the Weaving Women’s Voices in Southeast Asia (WEAVE) network in its report “Coming out of the dark: Pursuing access to justice in cases of sexual violence against girls in Asean,” it is as if sexual violence in the region were being made invisible.
As authoritarian regimes emerge, the culture of impunity and misogyny has intensified, making access to justice more elusive—especially in cases of sexual violence in many Asean countries.
But what could one have expected? Recall how President Duterte—host of this year’s Asean Summit—once made a joke of the rape-murder of an Australian missionary, or how US President Donald Trump, one of the most prominent leaders in the Asean Summit, once boasted how he could get away with anything—even with grabbing a woman’s privates. Such shocking examples of leadership partly explain why women’s issues are of low priority in this high-voltage gathering.
Poverty is the biggest reason that trafficking in girls remains a grim reality in many Asean countries. Poverty breeds desperation—and easy pickings for devious job recruiters. In fact, some 23 million, or two-thirds, of the world’s 36 million victims of human trafficking come from Asia, according to the 2014 Global Slavery Index.
The United Nations estimates that at least 64 percent of victims of human trafficking in Asia wind up in forced labor, servitude and slavery, while 26 percent become sexually exploited. Worse, 36 percent of trafficked victims in Asia are children.
Such dire figures are the result of certain conditions shared by many Asean countries: the weak rule of law, corruption, high levels of poverty, highly mobile but unskilled labor forces, and, lately, availability of and easy access to social media, which has been used to recruit women and children into jobs connected to the sex trade.
Military conflicts, as in Myanmar, also expose women and girls to sexual violence, as they become spoils of war for the victors, as well as tools of intimidation and pawns for negotiation between warring parties.
With Asean countries turning a blind eye to the abuses of fellow members under the bloc’s policy of noninterference, the politically sensitive case of the Rohingya of Myanmar merited scant attention in the summit.
As wire reports noted, Asean’s culture of silence has benefited spineless leaders, among them Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi who in 1999 slammed the Asean policy of noninterference as “just an excuse for not helping.”
Today, the Nobel laureate who used to lead her country’s prodemocracy movement has defended the Myanmar military’s violent crackdown on the Rohingya, suggesting that they were partly responsible for the crisis that has driven them to neighboring Bangladesh by the hundreds of thousands.
Asean’s reticence on the Rohingya issue might as well be a stamp of approval for such abuses, just as its silence on the sexual violence on women in the region might well seal the doom of these victims.
As the WEAVE network suggests, Asean must make access to justice among victims of trafficking part of the bloc’s central agenda. Condemning sexual violence among women and girls in its statement can be a good start.
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