When will we overcome gender injustice?

Shobha Shukla, Citizen News Service - CNS
The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BPFA) is 20 years old now. It was adopted by consensus in 1995 by 189 countries during the Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing, China. Although not a binding treaty, it affirms that issues of women’s rights and equality must be part of any government’s agenda. The 20th anniversary of BPFA has opened new opportunities to regenerate commitment, charge up political will and mobilize the public. 

Recently, as part of the Beijing +20 review process, an Asia Pacific Civil Society Forum on Beijing Plus 20, was organized in Bangkok by 14 civil society organizations with Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD) as co-secretariat, to take stock of the progress made in the region for implementing the BPFA and to integrate a broader discussion around the post-2015 development agenda.

Here are some of the women’s voices that echoed their concerns during the forum, reiterating their demand for a just and fair world for women. Sanaiyya Ansari of Bangladesh and Regional Council member of APWLD was happy to note that, “Women are finally breaking the silence around issues that concern them directly, and this is no mean achievement. Women with disabilities, women with different gender identities, sex workers—all are now voicing their problems openly. Earlier they were hiding themselves and not comfortable discussing these issues openly. Now there is increased participation and bondage across the entire spectrum of issues affecting women”.

The silence is, indeed, breaking. Kay Thi Win of Myanmar, who is Chairperson of the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers, proudly announced at the forum that she is a sex worker. According to her, when a woman makes the decision to sell sex, she has already made the decision to empower herself economically. Kay Thi demanded that sex work be treated as work and sex workers be treated as workers, and not as victims.

“We are also mothers, daughters and sisters and we need a supportive environment to work in. In the Asia pacific region there is criminalized environment for sex workers. Governments need to ensure that rights of sex workers are protected. De criminalization of prostitution is the best way to ensure protection of human rights of sex workers,” she said.

Dana Zhang, a lesbian from China said that it was at the Beijing conference 20 years ago that the Chinese saw LBT (lesbian, bisexual, transgender) people openly. In 2005 when Dana went to Beijing to join college she formed a lesbian community on the Internet. In 2007, for the first time in China, a workshop of the Lala (queer women) Alliance was held in which around 100 LBT activists from China, Hongkong, Taiwan and US shared their personal experiences. This was Dana’s starting point to advocate for lesbian rights. It was also the staring point of LBT movement across China. People from 18 years old to 60 years old began to join the movement, spreading their word across. That was the time when lesbians would be forced into mental hospitals by their parents because of their sexuality issues. But now more and more LBTs are coming out of the closet and sharing their problems on national and international platforms.

Abia of Pakistan has been engaged with the movement for women with disability since 1997. According to her, “In Pakistan and other South Asian countries, disability is seen as some sort of divine punishment. And if it is a woman with disability the curse is still more--they face more discrimination. I went through this trauma for 10 years and, despite having supportive parents, I had to go through the process of rehabilitation to become the so-called normal woman. When I met other women with disabilities I realized that disabilty is just a diversity—we do not need to fix it but learn to accept and live with it. The barriers women with disabilities face are huge—not getting basic education, healthcare, livelihood opportunities, and being confined to their homes. Even in disaster/conflict situations women with disability are left behind as they are considered an extra-burden to be carried. Very few civil society organziations are taking the concerns of women with disabilities at policy and decision making level. When we identified and connected the women with disabilities from grassroots to international level we could find only few such women who could speak about their rights. So we established the South Asian Network of Women with Disabilities, provided leadership training, and finally moved ahead with Asia Pacific Network of Women With Disabilities”.

“It is important to understand the diversity of each one of us, and to engage women with disabilities in policy dialogues. Women with disabilities have so far only heard ‘what has happened to you?’ or ‘have you shown yourself to a doctor?’ I think that women like me do not need a doctor and may be the person who is asking such questions needs one. I hope that in 2015 and post-2015 discussions we will have a stronger visibility and our issues will be highlighted in cross-cutting themes.”

Honey Tan, a lawyer from Malaysia shared with CNS one of her interesting cases that signified a giant leap for women’s rights in Malaysia: “Noor Fadilla had applied for a temporary teacher’s government job in 2009. She was selected, assigned a school, and completed all the relevant paperwork. Then she went for the final briefing along with the rest of the selected candidates. There, one guy asked if any of them was pregnant. Three women, including Noor Fadilla said yes. He then immediately took away their appointment letters and revoked their appointments. I took up Noor’s case and in 2010 I filed a case on her behalf to seek damages and a declaration. The female judge acknowledged that as Malaysia was a signatory to the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), it had breached Noor’s constitutional rights. She used the definition of discrimination against women as stated in the CEDAW to define refusal of job on account of pregnancy as a form of gender discrimination.

There were two big landmark areas within this decision given in 2011—(i)it said that the convention had the force of law that Malaysia had never set, as the country had acceded to CEDAW in 1995; (ii) the judge said that the government had done breach of Article 8(2) of the Federal Constitution that prohibits gender discrimination and so had to compensate. The registrar did the assessment of damages and Noor was awarded RM300, 000. Never before had damages been paid for breach of constitutional rights. This court’s decision came in 2012 and the government filed an appeal against it, but withdrew it in 2013. At that time Malaysia was to be reviewed by Human Rights’ Council and perhaps the government wanted to put up a good face in the international arena. So the case was recognized in Malaysia’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR- that is doen once every four and a half years) report.”

Tan also talked about exploitation of immigrant doemstic workers. “Malaysia does not export doemstic workers but imports them, mainly from Philippines and Indonesia. Filipino domestic workers being better educated are more in demand as compared to Indonesian ones. So their minimum wages are at least 50% higher than that for Indonesians. So this discrimination is there. Only few foreign domestic workers are undocumented—majority of them are documented. But being documented does not mean you get all the rights. Also, in other sectors employing immigrant workforce, men get better wages than women. So there is intra as well as inter discrimination.”

The ball is in the governments’ courts now. They will have to rally around not only making gender sensitive laws and policies but also ensuring their implementation at ground level. It is high time CSOs and governments view gender equality with the same lens in their respective regions. Why should it be that civil society can see and feel the discrimination but state agencies cannot? CSOs are helping in making the cries of women being heard by the powers that are. Now government policies need to be translated into action at the grass roots. It should no longer be about ‘we shall overcome’ but about ‘we have overcome.’

Shobha Shukla, Citizen News Service (CNS)
25 November 2014 
(The author is the Managing Editor of Citizen News Service - CNS. Email: shobha@citizen-news.org, website: www.citizen-news.org)