Category: Advocacy & commentary

Hong Kong is still failing its women

The South China Morning Post, 8 March — Op-Ed on International Women’ Day, with CEO of The Women’s Foundation, Su-Mei Thompson.

Later this year, Hong Kong will come under the microscope of a UN committee reviewing the city’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw). While Hong Kong is ahead of many other societies in protecting the human rights of women, big gaps remain, and The Women’s Foundation has submitted a “shadow report” to inform the committee’s analysis.

The gaps we have identified are wide- ranging and affect women and girls across age bands and social strata. Chief among them is the feminisation of poverty, reflected in the lack of specific consideration given to elderly women in the government’s budget for health care and the fact that, because many were not part of the formal workforce, they do not receive any benefits from the Mandatory Provident Fund scheme. This is all despite the fact women are outliving men by an average of six years.

In addition, middle-aged women hold the greatest number of casual, part-time and poorly paid jobs, representing the bulk of the workforce in catering, caring, cleaning and on cashier’s desks.

Indeed, while Hong Kong has a number of public and NGO-run schemes that provide fully or partially subsidised services for children, the elderly and the disabled, there are too few of them due to traditional gender roles and stereotypes. This places a burden on female family members in Hong Kong.A review of the minimal protections and benefits afforded part-time and casual workers is urgently required, along with retraining programmes that offer technical, financial and management training paired with employment opportunities that take into account the caring obligations for the elderly and children borne by many of these women.

In terms of the private-sector care market, this is restricted largely to the 10 per cent of families who can meet the financial and other requirements for hiring a foreign domestic helper. Easing the full-time and live-in requirements for foreign domestic helpers would open up the part-time care market for families who cannot afford or don’t have space to employ a helper, thereby restricting the ability of women to work.

This would also, critically, allow greater protection for foreign domestic workers, who can find themselves trapped in abusive conditions, and align with the UN committee’s 2006 recommendations to “implement a more flexible policy regarding foreign domestic workers” and protect them from abuses. In a recent survey by the Women’s Commission, many women cited caring for family members as the main reason they dropped out of the workforce. This is in a context where flexible working hours or options to work part-time or from home are rare in most sectors and professions.

Hong Kong’s paid maternity leave entitlement is among the lowest in Asia and the government’s plans to introduce paternity leave seem to have stalled. In the long term, Hong Kong should embrace the concept of gender-neutral parental leave, allowing parents to choose which of them assumes the greater share of child-care responsibilities.

But introducing paternity or parental leave is not enough – girls and boys need to be conditioned from an early age to accept that both sexes have a role to play as earners and carers.

Too little is being done by the government to combat harmful gender stereotypes – particularly in the media and advertising. That media are easily accessed through multiple devices and by younger generations makes it even more critical that the government, parents and educators adopt measures to ensure consumers, particularly young consumers, are aware of the potentially harmful effects of news reports and images that objectify women and promote unrealistic body ideals.

Linked to this, many teenagers are growing up without essential life skills and the critical thinking required to challenge gender-based assumptions and to see new possibilities for themselves.

Gender biases explain why women continue to be under-represented in science, technology, engineering or maths and in technology jobs. Addressing this will be critical for the prospects of future generations of Hong Kong girls and, ultimately, the economy.

This is a pivotal time for Hong Kong as it stands at the twin crossroads of greater democracy and ever-growing ties with China. It is critical that women have a seat at the table when it comes to deciding the policies that will govern and shape Hong Kong. Although there are some notable women in government and political parties who undeniably punch above their weight, women are under-represented in all levels of politics – from office bearers to voters.

The government needs to introduce initiatives to encourage the full and equal political participation of women, including helping to strengthen our political parties to make them an attractive and viable career path for women. In addition, education programmes for women on their right to vote would help balance the gender ratio among voters.

Finally, we hope the government will overhaul the Women’s Commission and give it the authority and resources to ensure that all relevant data is collected and analysed by gender and fed into the design of policies, programmes and budgets that promote women’s equality in Hong Kong.

Decisive action is needed on women’s rights, or we risk condemning future generations of women to indebtedness, indecision and frustration.

Su-Mei Thompson is CEO of The Women’s Foundation. Jo Baker is a research consultant on human rights. Lisa Moore also contributed to this article. 

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We need to talk about Quotas: Making women’s views count in Myanmar

South China Morning Post (Op Ed), 12 December 2013 Myanmar’s first high level international forum for women showed a surge of new ideas being tolerated by its government. Of the most impactful was in the debate on quotas – with global female icons Aung San Suu Kyi and Christine Lagarde on either side. Myanmar’s most […]

South China Morning Post (Op Ed), 12 December 2013

Myanmar’s first high level international forum for women showed a surge of new ideas being tolerated by its government. Of the most impactful was in the debate on quotas – with global female icons Aung San Suu Kyi and Christine Lagarde on either side.


Myanmar’s most famous icon may be female, and yet women have been absent in decision-making throughout its five-decade military stranglehold. Its activists have been at best, ignored – at worst imprisoned or killed. So last week’s high level international forum on women’s leadership – the first in the country, and with the support of the government – was a high profile suggestion of change.Hosted by the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society, and attended by political icon Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde and a range of international CEOs, it gave diverse women from Myanmar one of their first chances for unfettered public debate – including with Daw Su Kyi herself.

In doing so, Myanmar women were brought full force into one of the more divisive issues in developing democracies: quotas for women. Quotas are a temporary tool used to balance equality of opportunity, by allocating a percentage of positions to women, in sectors from politics to peacekeeping. Critics claim that they can lower the bar of ability or talent in a field, and lead to the tarnishing of legitimately qualified women; advocates counter that, wielded well, they are one of few ways to break through institutional barriers, change minds, and challenge stereotypes.  (Earlier this year the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) reported a significant increase in women MPs during the 48 elections in 2012, and put this largely down to their use.)


Yet despite the recommendation for quotas by the UN’s independent expert on Myanmar as well as the Myanmar government itself in a strategic plan on women’s empowerment (launched in October) – and strong results from the use of quotas in other fast developing neighbours, such as India[1] – the country has yet to host a healthy range of debates on  the issue – the kind that lead to locally owned decisions on where and how quotas are used.

It was therefore incredibly heartening to see the issue’s public debut at the conference, at full force.  In a compelling sight, Aung San Suu Kyi’s more conservative stance – softer pro women measures such as boosting education for girls – was countered with confronting questions by women from a range of sectors. Why should there be a 25% quota for the military in politics, but none for women? Will pro-women education policies really be enough to change the fact that more than 95% of Myanmar ‘s lawmakers are male – and across its 66,000 village wards, just ten reportedly have women leaders?  How can ethnic minority women bring their needs and priorities into negotiations on the conflicts that see them displaced,disenfranchised, and horrendously abused? And what role can and should the CEOs of Total, Accor, Pepsi Co – all present at the conference – play in promoting women’s equal rights to jobs, credit and resources as they take advantage of the country’s opening?

Christine LagardeAung San Suu Kyi The view of the IMF Chief – notable in its contrast to Daw Suu Kyi – made no small dent in the conversation. Quotas should be complemented by other measures, like flexi-time and training programmes, and be removed when enough momentum is built, she said. But they allow many talented women to take a step that, because of discrimination, is often too far large for them to take alone. And in this way Myanmar’s ‘cultural barriers’ Lagarde insisted, “can be shaken and moved.” Her reasoning will by now be wending its way in conversations, no doubt, across many of the country’s 14 provinces.

Myanmar’s government claims that it has started to progressively implement gender equality and women’s rights throughout the country, and this conference was indeed the latest in a very recent series of positive steps. Their support and attentiveness to events such as these – not only international and regional, but at the most local of levels – will be critical in keeping such a process valid, and sustainable.



[1] Ten years ago women made up less than five per cent of elected leaders in India’s panchayats, today, more than 40 per cent of local council leaders are women, and the perspectives of men and women in those villages about the value of girls, and the value of their education, has measurably improved. Read a case study I researched on quotas for UN Women.

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Op-Ed: Dynamic security – political change bad news for the women in Albania’s prisons

Open Democracy, 11 October 2013  [Article/photo story] Albania has been leading the Balkan region in its management of women’s prisoners – a complex group to detain and rehabilitate. Now, as a new government is sworn in and politically motivated staff changes look likely, this progress – and the wellbeing of its female inmates – is […]

Open Democracy, 11 October 2013

325 Womens Prison Tirana Alb 13 (61) [Article/photo story] Albania has been leading the Balkan region in its management of women’s prisoners – a complex group to detain and rehabilitate. Now, as a new government is sworn in and politically motivated staff changes look likely, this progress – and the wellbeing of its female inmates – is at risk. 

The formation of Albania’s new left-wing coalition this June signalled change for the country on many fronts. Yet one old fashioned tendency will likely pose unintended problems for a small minority – the women in its prisons.

[Click here for the original article; scroll down for photo story]

“Of course we are pleased with the democratic process,” says Erinda Bllaca, a lawyer with a local human rights NGO that makes regular monitoring visits to the country’s prisons. “But a change in government here unfortunately still means administrative change too. And when staff appointed by the previous regime are let go or redistributed, this can mean a lot of good progress going to waste.”

Wedged tightly among the low-rise flats of Albania’s capital, Tirana, the Ali Demi medium-security women’s prison is a case in point.  Run for five years by a female director with a background in social work, the small communist-era complex has managed to become an example of how – with limited resources – to imprison women ‘well’.

Women are a complex group to detain and rehabilitate. Historically out-of-focus in both prison management and international standards, research and advocacy has only recently begun to make a visible difference, thanks to campaigning organizations such as Penal Reform International, state-sponsored reviews (including Baroness Corston’s groundbreaking 2007 report for the UK Home Office and more recently, Dame Elish Angiolini’s recommendations to the Scottish government), and the UN’s long overdue Bangkok Rules: standards on the imprisonment of women released in 2010. Each has helped highlight the damage done to women, their families and their communities when their needs in prison are overlooked.

This is certainly relevant for Albania. Though the country is developing fast, its women are still less likely to be economically independent, more likely to face family violence, more likely to take on the responsibility of caring for children, and are at risk of much stronger stigma than men if imprisoned – particularly in rural areas where customary law has a stronghold.

325 Womens Prison Tirana Alb 13 (39)

An inmate plays with her child in Tirana’s women’s prison, Ali Demi. The prison accommodates children under the age of three and their mothers in a special wing, with around the clock child care assistance.

This resonates strongly among those in Ali Demi. “Our research in Albania’s prisons has found that many of its women have faced layer upon layer of violence and deprivation, at the hands of their husbands, family and the community, and they will suffer differently inside prison because of it,” said Therese Maria Rytter of Dignity – the Danish Institute Against Torture, which is conducting a study into global conditions for women in prison. “Many are cut off completely by their family, without news or contact with their children, and they dread the future that awaits them when they leave. The mental toll can be much greater.”

Irena Celaj’s approach as a new director took its cues from her social work background, but also very much from Albania’s new openness – in its pursuit of EU membership – to advice and training from international organizations, as well as local NGOs such as Bllaca’s  employer, the Albanian Rehabilitation Centre for Trauma and Torture (ARCT).  The team of ten care staff that Celaj has built at the 52-women prison, including a female head doctor, psychologist and head of social welfare, and seven other nurses and social support staff, has worked closely with the prison service and outside help to counter the gender-specific damage done by detention.

“Many of the women are abandoned because they killed someone within their families,” notes the prison’s Head of Social Welfare, Ingrid Balluka. “But most also did so after a lot of abuse. Some here also took the blame for killings done by their children. They need an extra amount of care, kindness, psychological and social support to heal, to join and face the community again.”

Ali Demi’s social workers spend much of their time mediating with and encouraging visits from women’s families and children, and checking up on children in homes and foster care. Group and individual therapy is often directed at the experiences of gender-based violence, or abandonment. When asked confidentially, many of the detainees’ spoke positively about the emotional support on offer.  “You can heal here,” said one woman, in her seventh year.

Irena Celaj

Irena Celaj

New flexibilities have also proven successful. Visiting hours are much longer than the standard 30-minute regulation; and most women can be released on leave toward the end of their sentence for days at a time as they start to re-establish their outside life. A busy vocational programme and an open door policy for trainers has seen inmates become busier throughout the week, say inmates and NGO workers, with languages, computer skills, cooking and handicrafts.

The morale of the women, as a result, not only appears visibly higher, but translates into an extremely low rate of violent incidents, depression and recidivism.

Bllaca, who works in prisons across the country, calls Ali Demi a ‘happy island’. Its director prefers to term it a place of ‘dynamic security’.

Indeed the only sense of state-led neglect for the women is in their housing – crumbling former military blocks that stand in stark contrast to the new facilities being built for men, but which the women have managed to warm with flowers, paint and handicrafts.

With a change of director almost certain however – along with other staff –  a note of discord has entered the daily life of the prison. The General Director of Prisons has already been replaced, and Celaj has been told to prepare for a handover – to a likely male director.  “I worry about keeping our programmes going. But above all, I worry for the trust we’ve built,” said Balluka. “These relationships are particularly important to women, and many have no one else. They are nervous.”

“I also wonder,” adds Celaj, “if a new prison direct is male, or has a police or a law background, how well he could really understand the needs here; the importance of the small details, and the outreach we’ve been building?”

Through a series of garden courtyards, in a bright, well kept library, inmates spoke privately about their friendships with staff and their dislike of change. “Without these staff I’m not sure how it would be, but not good. I think perhaps that we would fight more with each other,” said one 23-year old. “We even miss them at the weekend, when they’re off,” another woman volunteered. “They have become friends. Our environment is more peaceful with them here.”

Nevertheless, as Albania moves into the twenty first century and closer to Europe, old practices may no longer be renewed, and the change may well be handled differently than in the past.  “Maybe the new administration will see the value of keeping on those who do their job well, and all the training we’ve put into the last five years,” says ARCT founder, Adrian Kati.  “We certainly hope so.”  52 incarcerated women appear to agree.

Life Inside: Images from 325, Ali Demi women’s prison, Albania

Ali Demi prison is physically inadequate for its fifty or so female inmates. Yet despite this, the past five years have seen the prison – under the leadership of a director passionate about rehabilitation –  become a forward-looking place of hope and healing.

325 Womens Prison Tirana Alb 13 (3)

Male security staff are only allowed to work outside the prison, in line with international standards.


Though the buildings are old and inadequate, staff have helped the women to create a village atmosphere.

The communist-era buildings are old and inadequate, but staff have helped the women to create a village atmosphere.


Four women share each room, and many use their handicraft sessions to make homey furnishings. The doors of the cells are never locked, even at night.

Four women share each room, and many use their handicraft sessions to make furnishings. The doors of the cells are never locked, even at night. Women often wait until the weekends to pay each other social visits for tea and conversation.


Some find quiet sanctuary in the workshop. This woman, soon at the end of a 15 year sentence, is making a new wardrobe with material donated by staff and well wishers. She's been able to leave the prison for up to a week a number of times, to acclimatize to the outside world.

Some find quiet sanctuary in the workshop. This woman, soon at the end of a 15 year sentence, is making a new wardrobe with fabric donated by well wishers. In the past year she’s been able to leave the prison for up to a week, on a number of occasions. “It helps us understand how to behave, and prepare for release,” she says. “You can easily lose connection with the outside world.”


Women take turns to work in the kitchen as part of a daily work programme. Those who are able work 5-8 hours each weekday day, mostly a rotation of cleaning, gardening, cooking. Most prefer to be busy.

Women take turns to work in the kitchen as part of a daily work programme. Those who are able work do so 5-8 hours each weekday, generally rotating between cleaning, gardening and cooking. Most prefer to be busy, though they earn only 100 lek (1 USD) per month. “Being employed makes everything bearable,” said one woman, 14 years into her sentence. “I feel away from my problems. It keeps them away.”


There's a single public phone, but women can make or receive unlimited calls throughout the day. They must pay for outgoing calls using a phone card.

There’s a single public phone, but women can make or receive unlimited calls throughout the day. They must pay for outgoing calls using a phone card. This can be a problem for those abandoned by their families, and without funds of their own. Such abandonment is more common among female inmates, than male.


Attempts have been made to make the small visitors' room welcoming, but it doesn't allow for much privacy. Staff have no alternative.

Attempts have been made to make the small visitors’ room welcoming, but it doesn’t allow for much privacy, and staff have little alternative. Conjugal visits can be arranged occasionally though, in a small room nearby.


The library features a bank of donated computers

The library features a bank of donated computers. The women’s perspectives vary when it comes to their opportunities after prison, but many with less education prefer to learn vocational skills common to women here: kitchen work and hairdressing, handicrafts and child care. Many still take English or Italian lessons though.


Things are changing for women in Albania," said this young woman, who was arrested while finishing a degree in political science. "It's easier for women to be educated. But I'm sure when I leave there will be prejudice. We need to change the mentality of people."

“Things are changing for women in Albania,” said this young woman, who was arrested while finishing a degree in political science. “It’s easier for women to be educated. But I’m sure when I leave there will be prejudice. We need to change the mentality of people.”


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Recovering the right to be human

For the Helen Bamber Foundation in London, to commemorate Human Rights Day, December 2011

“I would say this is a place that recognises who you are, what you have suffered and lost, tells your story when you cannot, and documents your injuries. It recognises and acknowledges you, for otherwise no one would ever know who you are and what’s happened to you. In this way, we help our clients understand that that they have the right to be human.” – Helen Bamber

More than six decades since the UN Universal Declaration was signed, human rights standards continue to unite millions of people in their efforts to have every person treated according to his or her inherent dignity and worth. Yet for clients at the Helen Bamber Foundation, the concept sometimes proves challenging.

For a start, many who visit its therapy rooms may not have encountered these tools in a country that genuinely recognises them, as the UK does – comparatively speaking. Yet more profoundly challenging is the fact that many of these men and women, having survived extreme acts of cruelty and degradation, have had their sense of dignity and worth stripped away. Many no longer feel human. “Victims always feel desperately apart from the mass of humanity,’ Helen Bamber, the organisation’s co-founder and a clinician, has told me. ‘They no longer feel part of life.”

For the men and women who come here, growing to recognise and reclaim their rights as human beings can be a healing concept, and a profound goal.

Humanity denied

In 2011 HBF clinicians treated nearly 700 women and men. All have struggled to come to terms with this country and its processes, say therapists, while experiencing the extremes of trauma-related conditions.

Clients here deal with profound feelings of pain, alienation, fear and shame, because of what has been done to them and because of the debilitating physical symptoms that follow. From panic attacks, nightmares and insomnia; to hyper-vigilance and detachment from reality, these symptoms colonise them, and keep them apart. Many survivors speak of feeling sub-human, and having a sense of appearing that way to others.

In a book chapter by HBF co-founder and clinician Dr. Michael Korzinski, he cites a passage that he often reads to clients, particularly those who have been trafficked for labour or sex. It reads:

‘I was broken in body soul and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spar that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold, a man transformed into a brute.’

The author is former slave, Frederick Douglas, writing in the United States in the 1800s. Yet his voice, says Michael, is often indistinguishable from the young men and women who visit his consulting room today.

Humanity revived

So while HBF clinicians use a range of specialist treatments to help clients heal, they have found the language of human rights to have an indispensible clinical value. ‘By explaining who we are, and our principles, the principles of a human rights organisation,’ Helen has told me, ‘it does help them to see themselves differently in the world, and change how they feel about themselves. They have a recognized place, and they can make demands. It can effect an internal change, from victim to survivor.’

Yet to me, by taking on the cause of those who have fled brutality, and by addressing the suspicion, disbelief and denial that asylum seekers too often face among the UK public, the Foundation’s healing influence has a reach beyond its client base.

Its co-founder – informed by six decades as a clinician and campaigner, and still working a six-day week aged 87 – was keen to stress the role of each person in preserving these hard-won values. It is with Helen’s words to me that I end this reflection.

“Human rights legislation was created to guarantee the protection of those in danger of man’s inhumanity. But it’s when things become very tough, when governments and populations are faced with difficulties that human rights seem to be forgotten. After the carnage of the Second World War there were many thousands of survivors of cruelty, wandering around Europe, and it was our duty to attend to them then, as it still is now.

From my work with survivors of concentration camps, most of all, I learned the responsibility to bear witness. This is what the survivor demands, even in their dying. So I would say this is a place that recognises who you are, what you have suffered and lost, tells your story when you cannot… It recognises and acknowledges you. For otherwise no one would ever know who you are and what’s happened to you. In this way, we help our clients understand that that they have the right to be human. And this is how we preserve the underlying principles of human rights.”


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Building alliances: Indigenous women leaders unite against development-based violence

UN Women, 23 November 2012 The sound of helicopters still makes Soi Tonnampet shake, years later. It takes her back to the first time she and others from her indigenous community, the Karen, fled from an operation to clear areas of national parkland in Northern Thailand. She recalls that during their first three-day escape through […]

UN Women, 23 November 2012

The sound of helicopters still makes Soi Tonnampet shake, years later. It takes her back to the first time she and others from her indigenous community, the Karen, fled from an operation to clear areas of national parkland in Northern Thailand. She recalls that during their first three-day escape through the forest – one of many – an elderly woman died and another woman miscarried.

Indigenous women shared their concerns about development-induced violence,
and the strategies they have used to address it during the four-day meeting.
Photo credit: UN Women/Jo Baker


For Lori Beyer, who is helping indigenous women contend with mining operations in the Philippines, gender-based violence has a different face. “Many of the male campaigners have to go into hiding,” she says. “It makes the women more vulnerable to sexual harassment, intimidation and sometimes worse.”

Although they come from villages far apart, indigenous women’s network members from across Southeast Asia found shared ground during a recent consultation on violence against indigenous women, which focused on forms of violence that are worsened or caused by economic development projects.


Soi Tonnampet and Kruemebuh Chaya, both members of the Karen tribe from Keng Kra Chan, Thailand, share their experiences of violence and displacement with the group during a story-telling session. Photo credit: UN Women/Jo Baker.


Organized by the Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Pact and supported by UN Women, the meeting is part of work to connect indigenous women with each other, rights experts, and the skills they need, to define and respond to pressing issues. As decisions on the sustainable development framework are made, and countries – particularly ASEAN members – open up economically, the need to battle their invisibility and lack of public voice has become increasingly important.

“The impact of the violence on indigenous women that comes with militarization of indigenous territories, with the destruction of our natural resources and with the consequence of displacement, affects them not just as individuals but as a collective – through the social-cultural dimension of their identity and dignity,” says Joan Carling, AIPP Secretary General. “If [indigenous women] are not participating in any decision-making where it concerns them, then this issue is not being addressed”.

Although often found in areas of natural wealth, indigenous groups make up 5% of the world’s population, but 15% of the poorest worldwide, according to the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). Many contend with extensive damage, marginalization and human rights violations as a result of aggressive development processes.

For women, these harms can take on different forms. The influx of non-indigenous workers and security personnel into indigenous areas has seen prostitution increase, for example, along with sexual harassment and rape. As indigenous livelihoods are altered or destroyed, levels of gender-based violence often rise, and economic, social and cultural harms can affect women differently as their burdens shift or increase. Yet with lower levels of education, and held back by multiple layers of discrimination, indigenous women can struggle to highlight their concerns and lead change.

Despite language and cultural barriers the women found solidarity –
and lighter moments – during the consultation.
Photo credit: Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact



Nevertheless, with support, women leaders are emerging as effective advocates.  The Chiang Mai consultation connected twenty-nine indigenous women from eight countries in Southeast Asia  with regional and international human rights experts, women’s rights and indigenous peoples rights advocates – including representatives from the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children, and the UN’s Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP).  “At this workshop I can hear other country’s cases, and how they have overcome [them] so that I learn from them,” says Seng Mai, who has been helping indigenous and rural people to respond to development projects in Myanmar, through the Kachin Development Networking Group. “And I can hear about international law, such as customary law and CEDAW.”

Participants also shared positive progress – whether cases pushed into and through their criminal justice process, interventions triggered from the UN Human Rights Council, or in the case of the Philippines recently, a military court martial successfully campaigned for, for soldiers suspected of extrajudicial killing.

Other network members, with support from UN Women and others, spoke of meeting with decision-makers on international platforms like the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), or the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012 (Rio+20).  Many spoke of placing force behind their lobbying using the women’s and collective rights frameworks, found in international instruments such as the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples  and CEDAW, known as the Women’s Convention.

Indigenous women from three areas of Indonesia meet with women from
Thailand’s Akha hill tribe, during the participants’ trip to a tribal village in
Chiang Mai. Photo credit: UN Women/Jo Baker


At the conclusion of the meeting, participants agreed on an action plan – a series of research, advocacy and capacity building steps for the coming year. For women like Soi, Lori and Seng Mai, the solidarity and the strategizing are a source of knowledge, but also critical encouragement and moral support.

This is a chance for me to bring this information to my country, my village and the women there,” explains Seng Mai. “So in the future when we face problems, we can all address them.”


The Southeast Asia Consultation on Development, Access to Justice and the Human Rights of Indigenous Women: Combating development-induced violence against indigenous women, Chiang Mai, Thailand, 30 October – 2 November 2012, was sponsored by the Canadian International Development Agency, under UN Women’s Regional Programme on Improving Women’s Human Rights  programme in Southeast Asia


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Around the ASEAN Summit, the region’s women rally

UN Women, 20 November 2012

As world leaders meet in Phnom Penh to discuss the future of the region at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on 16 – 20 November, diverse civil society groups have been working to keep their fingers on the pulse and their voices at high volume.

Particularly vocal among these have been women’s rights groups, for whom the Summit and its People’s Forum are emotional rallying points – a chance to amplify issues being discussed by women in homes, civic spaces and workplaces across Southeast Asia. These range from gender-based violence to sustainable development priorities and the scarcity of female decision-makers.

At the Cambodian Women’s Forum, held in the lead up to the ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, a  member of the Cambodian Women’s Caucus takes notes as a campaign statement is drafted.  Credit: UN Women/Jo Baker

For one dynamic network, preparations have been long in the making. The Southeast Asia Women’s Caucus on ASEAN, a constellation of 55 women’s rights groups in 11 countries, has been connecting grassroots women with ASEAN’s decision makers on human rights since 2008, and approached the event as one of many entry points to the Association. Supported by UN Women, with funding from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the Caucus was formed to help women’s organizations better understand and work with ASEAN mechanisms.

This year, 13 women from the Caucus were sponsored to travel to Phnom Penh and join the rights campaigning and strategizing taking place around the ASEAN Summit. Each brought the concerns and demands of women’s groups in their countries, along with leadership skills honed in consultations and rights workshops.

Orchida Ramadhania, for example, comes from Indonesia’s ‘AKSI’, an organization she founded to campaign for gender, social and ecological justice.  Among other events she spoke in an NGO-organized session on the ASEAN economic community blueprint for 2015, and its potential impact on women. The blueprint is a master plan adopted to guide the founding of the ASEAN economic community in 2015. “It’s crucial for people to gather and work out our thoughts and ideas together about how to prepare for this integration,” she says. “Already with our experience here in Cambodia we’ve learned so much from the women; and we’ve got to know the situation of women in Thailand and Philippines, and how they organize themselves.”  

Other issues on the table have included the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD), which was adopted at the Summit in a landmark move for the region, but has been criticised for falling short of international standards and fails to adequately protect women in areas such as migration and sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Puspa Dewy and Wahida Rustam belong to Indonesia’s Solidaritas Perempuan, a member of the Southeast Asia Women’s Caucus. “It’s important to inform many stakeholders what will happen with the ASEAN Economic Community Blueprint,” says Rustam. “We will develop a strategy together on what we can do to ensure that this policy doesn’t make people, especially women’s situation, more poor and unjust.” Credit: UN Women/Jo Baker

Over the past few years the Caucus has seen its profile grow. It has been called into consultations with both the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) to transmit the network’s recommendations on issues such as the AHRD drafting process. Many members express hope in the strengthening of such two-way channels, despite concerns that their inputs are not always taken on board.  “We have been recognized as a group to reckon with at the ASEAN level,” says Sumitha Saanthinni Kishna, Executive Officer of the Bar Council Malaysia, and a Caucus Member. “Not a lot of regional groups get that opportunity right now. Some of the national groups have been having very good collaborations with their ACWC representatives,” she added. “So when they come to the regional consultation, they’re no strangers – and that helps.”

Mork Sergegodh (left), 20 is an Economics student at Panachiet University,
and a member of the CWC’s extremely active young women’s contingent.
“I feel that since I’m part of the ASEAN community, I should be a part of
making it better for women,” she says. “I want ASEAN to recognise
women and the skills they are capable of.” Credit: UN Women/Jo Baker


In Phnom Penh, Caucus members joined almost 60 other organizations in finalizing and endorsing an alternative draft of the AHRD, which they have called the ASEAN Peoples’ Human Rights Declaration.

Meanwhile in the Summit’s host country, a national women’s caucus on ASEAN, also supported by UN Women, is working to achieve similar recognition. Cambodian women have been meeting through their own caucus to produce more consistent advocacy messages on issues like land rights and access to health care. Its Women’s Forum last week was attended by over 200 women from across the country, many from rural areas, and produced a campaign statement for high level and broader public attention.


More than 160 women attended the Forum, which was supported by UN Women.
“It’s given me the bigger picture, and how to use it,”  says Yous Thuy, 56, of
the Women’s Caucus, who has worked for the KWWA in Cambodia’s Kratie
Province for nine years. “I want to take my experiences to the government
and ASEAN to make sure there is empowerment, education and protection
for migrant women in our laws”. Credit: UN Women/Jo Baker

“The Caucus has successfully helped us link women from rural and provincial levels,” says its chair Thida Khus, who is also Executive Director of Cambodian NGO, SILAKA and the new civil society representative to technical working group meetings on gender, chaired by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. “Before, women’s organizations were just doing their own thing, but now we bring all the issues together and advocate together. I think we have managed to build the infrastructure of a women’s movement here – and revitalize it.”

The Cambodian and broader Southeast Asia Caucuses have been working together to keep women informed and involved with the advocacy efforts, in what has been a challenging landscape, while also formulating statements on issues of critical concern to women in the ASEAN region. And while their impact of their actions on visiting leaders has yet to be assessed, the effect on many of the women themselves, their abilities and intentions, is indisputable. “ASEAN is the new arena for power and influence,” says Ramadhania. “It will be difficult to manage the situation and the issues that come if we as civil society and the women’s movement do not work in this arena, hand in hand.”

The Southeast Asia Women’s Caucus is funded by the Canadian International Development Agency, under UN Women’s project, Regional Mechanisms to Protect the Human Rights of Women and Girls in Southeast Asia

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Where violence and HIV meet: Intersections are explored at this year’s International AIDS Conference, and the Kolkata Conference Hub

Say NO UNiTE (link), 26 July 2012

Held every two years, the International AIDS Conference is the world’s largest conference on HIV, and plays a fundamental role in shaping the global response to HIV, and keeping HIV and AIDS on the international political agenda.

While the global climate for this year’s event in Washington DC (22-27 July) has seen  funding for the global HIV response diminish, important achievements are emerging on, among other areas, most-at-risk populations, the intersection of violence and HIV, parent-to-child transmission, and treatment as prevention. Attending for the first time as an official co-sponsor of UNAIDS, UN Women has been working to champion gender equality and women’s empowerment in the global response to HIV.

Among the week’s discussions, UN Women convened and moderated a panel of women leaders to highlight achievements in women’s leadership that are driving change and transformation of the HIV response; and co-sponsored events focused on gender-based violence and its link to HIV, in a panel “Taking Stock of Evidence and Setting the Implementation Agenda, panelists highlighted the latest evidence of how violence against women is increasing risk of HIV infection.   A panel discussion with, ‘Together for Girls’ , a unique initiative that UN Women is part of, bringing together private sector organizations, UN entities and governments in the fight against sexual violence against girls, explored the need for better data to document the magnitude and impact of sexual violence as a means to support the development and implementation of evidence-based policies and interventions.

HIV is the leading cause of death for women of reproductive age worldwide, and every minute, a young woman is infected with HIV, as reported by UNAIDS. The impact of HIV on women and girls, compared to men and boys, is intrinsically connected to gender inequality, unequal power relations, gender-based violence, stigma and discrimination. Indeed, women who have experienced some form of violence are up to three times more at risk of HIV infection than those who have not. This is attributable to sexual violence, sexual exploitation and trafficking, and cases of forced or child marriage among vulnerable communities. Yet it is also the case because women across the world are often unable to negotiate the terms of their sexual relationships, including the use of condoms.

“Violence against women and HIV/AIDS are inextricably intertwined and mutually enforcing,” says Meryem Aslan, Manager of the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women. “Changes must centre on the empowerment of women and girls, and the transformation of social norms around what it means to be a man.”

At the conference Indonesian women’s rights activist Baby Rivona of the Indonesian Positive Women network (pictured left), spoke about the many forms of violence and discrimination faced by women living with HIV. “Among our members, there is a lot of violence after they [are diagnosed with HIV and reveal their status] … psychological violence from family members and partners, physical violence; and discrimination from the health services. The health service workers advise coerced sterilization, and yet women living with HIV don’t really understand its meaning.”

Meanwhile, in Kolkata, India, a parallel conference hub has been organized, to ensure that many of those who are unable to travel to Washington can take part in the discussions. The Kolkata Conference Hub will be supported by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, which drew seed money from the International AIDS Society, and other agencies, namely UNAIDS. With its strong focus on sex work, the conference aims to highlight the forms of violence, coercion and discrimination faced by those in this group, and the need for violence to be factored into any approach to combat HIV among them.

“Addressing violence against sex workers requires an understanding about how violence actually increases the risk of exposure to HIV,” says Meena Seshu, director of sex workers’ rights organization, SANGRAM, which is participating in the event. “Helping sex workers tackle violence will, in turn, help them respond to reducing their vulnerability to HIV.”

Click here for more on the Kolkata event, more from Seshu on the intersection of violence and HIV in the sex work industry, and from Baby Rivona on discrimination and coerced sterilization in Indonesia.

For tools, resources, and information on gender equality dimensions of the AIDS epidemic, check UN Women’s Gender Equality and HIV/AIDS Web Portal, UN Women’s Factsheet on the linkages between HIV and violence against women, UN Trust Fund report on “Effective Approaches to Addressing the Intersections of Violence against Women and HIV/AIDS” and the Virtual Knowledge Centre to End Violence against Women.

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