In ASEAN, women empowerment low on priority list

Civil societies in Southeast Asia question why ASEAN member countries are able to find compromise when it comes to economic and political issues, but refuse to give up sovereignty when it comes to human rights

Natashya Gutierrez
Published 11:45 AM, Mar 08, 2015
Updated 12:30 PM, Mar 09, 2015

Second of two parts

Part 1: ASEAN countries slow on funding women empowerment

MANILA, Philippines – Seng Reasey has worked to advance women’s rights in Cambodia through SILAKA since 2012.

She has repeatedly tried to contact her government’s representative to the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) to speak about how the government and civil society can work together to empower women – but to no avail.

“Even if we send a letter to them, we can’t send it directly to them, we have to send it to the Minister of Women’s Affairs. We wait for approval from the minister,” she told Rappler.

“Mostly when we get a response, it’s ‘Sorry we are not available, we have a full schedule.’ They always say they don’t have time.”

Cambodia is one of the Southeast Asian countries where the voices of civil societies are paid little mind by the government. Within the region, there is a distinct variety in the influence played by non-governmental organizations, largely due to the government’s openness to collaboration. In Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand for instance, civil societies enjoy greater access to government representatives, and are even able to shape national policies relating to women.

“Since the (inauguration of ACWC), GABRIELA has initiated consultations and participated in various fora to raise women’s issues and concerns with ACWC, both at the national regional venues,” Joms Salvador, Secretary General of the Philippines-based women’s group said.

Salvador said they have also “engaged actively in ACWC consultations and processes” and when the ACWC was formulating its Work Plan, “organized a national grassroots women’s consultation where (Philippine) women’s representative Aurora de Dios attended.”

In the first part of this report, Rappler examined the funding limitations of the ACWC which has held it back from making significant progress in its 2012-2016 Work Plan. In this second part, Rappler looks into the limitations of the ACWC’s mandate and the characteristics of ASEAN that negatively affect ACWC’s effectiveness.

The ASEAN problem

The discrepancies experienced by civil societies among member countries is not unique to the ACWC but a function of the way ASEAN works as a whole. Because of the deep cultural differences among nations unique to the region – largely influenced by the fact that most were colonial legacies – ASEAN emphasizes consensus and non-interference, values that have had negative effects on efficiency.

In ACWC specifically, the commission’s leadership can encourage but cannot compel certain representatives to be more open to civil societies if their specific governments do not want to. Even the appointment of a representative varies from country to country, with some representatives being government officials, while others are from civil society such as ACWC Chairperson Datin Paduka Hajah Intan bte Haji Mohd Kassim of Brunei Darussalam, and the academe, like the Philippines’ Aurora Javate de Dios.

The various perspectives is an asset for the ACWC but Seng hopes civil societies had more say in countries like hers, on the appointment of national representative. Kate Lappin, the regional director of the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD) agrees, saying it is only Indonesia that has a process where civil society can nominate a representative to the ACWC.

“Sometimes (the other countries) have good people but the processes are very important. That’s something we would like to see change,” said Lappin.

But even with the appointment of capable representatives to the ACWC, another ASEAN value poses a problem for the ACWC in achieving its planned projects – consensus. Unable to make any decisions unless all 10 representatives agree, De Dios said some issues – specifically reproductive health and LGBT rights – remain unaddressed because of the varying opinions of countries. They may be discussed, she said, but if there is no consensus, it cannot be included in the Work Plan.

And consensus is even harder to reach, due to the fact that ACWC is an inter-governmental body.

“The ACWC is just like any body of ASEAN in that we are appointed by government and for that reason you may not be as independent as you want to be the way the experts are in CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women), and the CRC (Convention on the Rights of the Child). As an expert, you are free to express your opinions whether your government agrees with you or not. They have that type of independence,” De Dios said.

“In ASEAN, I don’t think we have that. Whatever opposition you have with your government you have to express it privately.”

Lappin cites migrant workers’ rights as an important issue that has not yet been addressed in ASEAN, due to the diversity among nations and the consensus needed to do so.

“On migrant workers, we have a big difference in the approach of countries where women are migrating from and where women are migrating to. So we might be able to get support from countries in the region like the Philippines, Indonesia, and Cambodia where women are migrating from, but those receiving countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, they’re really not interested,” she said.

“That’s a problem that is very diverse in this subregion, and the political difference of each country as well make it a challenge. It does have more challenges I think than other subregions.”


Datin Intan herself understands the limitations of the ACWC given the way ASEAN works, limitations exacerbated by the commission’s Terms of Reference (TOR). With a background in civil society herself, Datin Intan admits she wants to see more collaboration, as well as independence.

Her awareness and openness, as chairperson of the commission, is a promising first step for improvement, but intention is far from enough given the challenges.

“We are reviewing our TOR. I would like to see substantive changes especially in the area of independence of the commission, but of course we still want to remain an inter-governmental body. But on the mandate there should be more support (for us) despite independence,” she said.

“Will ASEAN give us independence without giving their support? How do you harmonize that? How will ASEAN balance that? ASEAN member countries of course have different political systems, background, cultures, so it has to be harmonized even in the bodies they set up – we have to respect that also.”

While Datin Intan has an ideal arrangement in mind, she admitted she herself does not know how to strike that perfect balance – the million-dollar question given the nature of ASEAN. Lappin suggests considering independent individuals to be part of the ACWC to at least add a voice that is not representative of any government.

“They can also look into other ways the human rights bodies around the world have focused on issues, like having a special rapporteur, an independent person who really looks at issues around the region, not representing a government and who is really focused on an issue. They can have a special rapporteur for women migrant workers or domestic violence who has that mandate to really provide input on those systemic issues,” she said.

Aside from increased independence modeled after other international human rights bodies like CEDAW and CRC, another limitation in the mandate recognized by Lappin is the lack of an enforcement mechanism that could make tangible differences for communities.

De Dios echoes this sentiment, explaining the ACWC’s hands are tied when an NGO comes to the commission and asks for help in addressing a specific and serious problem in their country – with no protection mandate like other regional bodies do.

“We ourselves cannot respond to that concern, and this is the part that is so frustrating especially from the point of NGOs because you have a human rights mechanism that cannot move and is tied up by many things. Its not in our TOR to respond to urgent calls for assistance, and to also respond to issues that are not in sync with some of the cultural practices of some countries,” she said.

Use mandate better

Lappin gives assurances she appreciates the limitations of ACWC’s mandate but also made it clear that the TOR is not something that cannot be amended.

“There’s a range of ways they can really improve their TOR if there was political will to really advance women’s rights in the region,” she said.

Yet even without changes to the TOR, Lappin said the ACWC can better use the mandate they do currently have – specifically by focusing more on regional issues and cross-border problems, which she said could “really add momentum even if it’s just as a recommendation to addressing a systemic issue.”

“For example we made a recommendation that they could focus on migrant domestic workers, the largest form of migration for women in the region and it is one of the most exploited professions and I think systemically it has not been addressed on a regional approach and can be easily addressed,” she said.

“So rather than domestic violence which is a national issue, issues on violations against domestic workers is a cross-border issue. Something like that is where they can really concentrate on a report, they can focus on where the problems are, and they can come up with a very concrete recommendation.”

Salvador agrees with the observation, saying that while the ACWC has been open to civil society in general, and has limitations in its mandate, it could do more in that area.

“There’s the pressing challenge for ACWC to realize a more effectual role in addressing cross-border issues such as trafficking of women, forced migration and climate crisis that impact heavily on the women of Southeast Asia,” she said.

    “There’s a range of ways they can really improve their TOR if there was political will to really advance women’s rights in the region.”

While Lappin believes there is much room for improvement however, she is also quick to appreciate the ACWC’s efforts and usefulness, agreeing there is value in having the ACWC as a separate commission from the ASEAN Committee on Women (ACW) or the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR).

The ACW, which preceded the ACWC, is composed of national machineries while the ACWC is a more mixed group, although there are suggestions to elevate the ACW to a ministerial body to create duplication between the two.

“I think there’s value in having a separate commission. I don’t think the ACW has the same level of engagement. I think they seem to take a welfare approach not a rights-based approach,” she said.

Lappin also clarified that while she thinks the impact of the commission has been limited, it is well-intentioned.

“I dont want it to be a criticism of the individuals there because they are hugely limited by funding and what they get. I think there have been genuine attempts by some people in the ACWC to make it work, and some who want to do more but the actual impact I think I haven’t seen a lot of evidence or impact on women’s rights or even expand the understanding of human rights,” she said.

“I think (the ACWC) is still an important thing. We want to make it effective, we don’t want to abolish it.”


Datin Intan remains optimistic despite the criticisms, welcoming suggestions from civil societies on how to improve. She also emphasizes however, that the region has made advances towards the right direction.

“We are talking about ASEAN. Some countries don’t have human rights commissions but it is again a development in ASEAN that we set up two human rights bodies, one is specific for women, another for human rights in general,” she said.

    “We should think positively, now that there is a development there… I’m optimistic about the future with younger generations taking over who are modern in their thinking.”

In recent years, the ACWC itself has also moved towards ways to increase effectiveness, including collaboration with other ASEAN human rights bodies like the ACW and AICHR, to maximize resources and avoid redundancy. Datin Intan said this is a weakness of ASEAN – the lack of a system that facilitates smooth coordination among its bodies.

“There are some duplication now. We are moving to reducing that duplication by working with each other,” she said.

“We have meetings with senior officials on welfare and the ACW and we are moving towards that coordination, we have done joint projects and in the next cycle of our Work Plan, we look towards more collaboration with other sectoral bodies in ASEAN who also touch on women and children.”

But beyond that, ACWC more importantly wants to see further collaboration between the 3 ASEAN pillars – economic, political and social – particularly in discussing women’s rights.

“There is a very big gap between the collaboration of the economic community, with the political community and socio-cultural. Those 3 pillars are almost working in silos and with very little collaboration,” De Dios said.

Not a priority

The Philippine representative said they have talked to the political and economic division to increase awareness of women, only to realize these divisions are largely unconscious of gender issues.

“So for instance in the building of the ASEAN integrated economy, they examine it in a very neutral way, and do not have the added value of gender analysis in the economy in which women figure prominently in agricultural sectors or IT sectors, which is not going to make your economic analysis very sharp,” De Dios said.

“That is something that we hope could happen, the cross consultation across the pillars. That has not yet happened.”

Datin Intan said this is especially important given that women make up the biggest workforce, but said the “lack of ASEAN initiative in the area of economic empowerment” is clear, since women are also the poorest group.

Lappin agrees that as a region, ASEAN just simply does not place women’s rights among its priorities, with member countries simply more concerned with economic and political issues over socio-cultural ones.

“These governments have agreed to act collaboratively on some issues and they’ve been able to overcome some of their differences when they’re collectively interested in markets. They agree on issues we think are fundamentally problematic. They agree to provide for investment, right of corporations but they can’t agree to provide rights of people,” Lappin said.

“They have a comprehensive ASEAN investment treaty which very clearly say they’ve agreed to give rights to corporations and very clearly have given up some of their own national policies. They’ve talked about sovereignty, they’ve given up sovereignty when it comes to corporations they just haven’t given up any power when it comes to human rights.”

On this, Datin Intan argues little.

Asked whether women’s rights is a priority of ASEAN, she conceded, “I don’t think so. I think there’s a lot more we can do on women’s rights, even within ASEAN, in the advancement of women.” –

This story was produced under the Reporting ASEAN: 2015 and Beyond series of IPS Asia-Pacific in cooperation with the Probe Media Foundation. This program is supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, the ASEAN Foundation and the Japan-ASEAN Solidarity Fund.