Confronting Traditions and Contextualizing Modernity: The Challenges of Protecting Women’s Human Rights in Southeast Asia

“The central moral challenge of this century is gender inequity. In the nineteenth century it was slavery, in the twentieth century it was totalitarianism, and in this century it is the oppression of women and girls throughout the world.” – Sheryl WuDunn


Women and girls in Southeast Asia face gender–based discrimination, harassment, extortion, and are among the top victims of physical and sexual violence in the world, putting them at an increased risk of poverty, ill health, and death. ASEAN has taken many strategic steps to address women’s human rights, always emphasizing regional and culturally sensitive approaches. However, the recent adoption of the ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights (DHR) has provoked a wave of criticism from the international community and the United States, as this approach is said to dilute, rather than enhance, women’s rights and provides ready-made justifications for its members not to comply with international standards of human rights. As the US seeks to elevate its relations with ASEAN to a strategic level, the greatest ethical and moral challenge facing US–ASEAN relations will be addressing the cultural relativism regarding women's human rights promoted by ASEAN.


Sex–trafficking has become a serious public health and human rights concern in the region, as an estimated 200,000–250,000 women and girls in Southeast Asia are trafficked each year. Women who have been physically and sexually abused have higher rates of mental health issues, are at a higher risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, and they are also in danger of having unwanted pregnancies, miscarriages, and unsafe abortions. Physical and sexual violence not only deny women of the most basic element of human dignity, but it many instances create stigmas that stifle their ability to engage in productive activities such as education, income generation, and politics. They are systematically obstructed from entering formal markets and are locked into a vicious cycle of poverty that has a devastating ripple effect on their households and communities. The UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific identified Southeast Asia as a region that is facing large gender disparity in male-female income inequality along with an asymmetric representation of women in vulnerable employment meaning women are still among the lowest wage earners in jobs that endanger their well-being. Promoting women’s human rights is an essential component of societal development and is a major indicator of a country’s well being, and should be of the utmost importance for a thriving region such as Southeast Asia.


Almost from its inception in 1967, ASEAN Member States have recognized the importance of promoting and respecting women’s rights and have undertaken a regional approach to the advancement of these rights. Member States adopted the Declaration of the Advancement of Women in the ASEAN Region (1988), the ASEAN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women in the ASEAN Region (2004), the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (2010). Cementing its commitment to the promotion and protection of Human Rights across the globe, ASEAN Member States have also signed and ratified the Convention on All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Beijing Platform for Action, and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), of which Goal 3 (Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women) and Goal 5 (Improve Maternal Health) directly address issues pertaining to the women and their human rights. However, the recent adoption of the ASEAN DHR (2012), in which leaders of member-states reaffirmed their commitments to their previous declarations on human rights, has raised criticism from the international community and the United States.  


The United States Department of State remains committed to partner with ASEAN on the protection of human rights, and “in principle supports the ASEAN Declaration on Human Rights.” However, it has made very clear that while the ASEAN DHR follows the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), which Myanmar, The Philippines and Thailand supported at the United Nations General Assembly, many of its principles and articles are problematic. Articles 6 and 7 of the ASEAN DHR, for example, use the concept of "cultural relativism" and in the view of the State Department suggest that rights in “the UDHR do not apply everywhere; stipulating that domestic laws can trump universal human rights; incomplete descriptions of rights that are memorialized elsewhere; introducing novel limits to rights; and language that could be read to suggest that individual rights are subject to group veto.” Other regional organizations have drafted similar declarations on human rights. The African Union, for example, established the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (The Maputo Protocol), which most of its members have ratified. However, neither the Maputo Protocol or other declarations have included language that called for regional and national contexts to be considered in human rights.


ASEAN is arguably one of the world’s most successful regional organizations. However, the “flaws” in its Human Rights Declaration have raised deep concerns among senior UN officials, human rights advocates, and hundreds of civil society groups at the national, regional and international level. The document is criticized for “falling short of international human rights and law,” as well as dismissing international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Convention of 1949. The document makes no particular commitment to improve the lives of women and girls and it asks that human rights be considered within regional and national contexts, “bearing in mind different political, economic, legal, social, cultural, historical and religious backgrounds,” which makes issues of gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation vulnerable to national prejudices and, ultimately, does not require countries to respect human rights. The declaration is seen as providing ready–made justifications for human rights violations of the people within the jurisdiction of ASEAN member states, as the fulfillment of the rights outlined in the document are made subject to national laws rather than institutionalizing commitment and respect for human rights.


The ASEAN DHR should be considered a concrete first step that commits ASEAN to human rights protection and promotion. Nevertheless, it is difficult to ignore that it poses a threat to advancing the human rights of women and girls, particularly those living in conflict areas such as Myanmar. ASEAN’s commitment should be continuously evolving and improved upon so that a future document will be unhesitating in its commitment and full adherence to the UDHR. To some extent, some regional contextualization of what are considered universal human rights can lead to a better understanding of what can and cannot be realized by countries that adopt such top-down international norms. However, while a respect and consideration for regional contexts is important and valuable to understanding the ability of nations to implement, this should not translate into a redefinition of what a human right is. The preamble to the UDHR clearly states that gender equality is a basic human right and before the Declaration was even finished the UN had already established the Commission on the Status of Women, this is indisputable and should not be undermined by regional agreements. With this in mind, ASEAN’s attempts at providing an “ASEAN way” in the implementation of human rights commitment can lead to avenues for further dialogue and cooperation between itself and interested countries so that a full adherence to the UHDR will be possible in the future. It has been a pattern in international relations that adopting international standards and norms does not necessarily lead to their implementation at the national level.


The challenges that we have identified both at the regional and national levels in Southeast Asia lead us to conclude that more efforts are needed to improve the status and welfare of women in this region and therein lies the greatest ethical challenge for the US. How to promote and protect the rights of women in Southeast Asia, while tentatively working with ASEAN to use its own approach should therefore be among the top policy considerations that ASEAN and the US must focus on if the situation of women in the region is to improve. The commitment to the protection and promotion of women’s human rights presents many opportunities for cooperation and dialogue between ASEAN and the United States. The Obama administration has so far shown a resolve to the strengthening of US ties with ASEAN and has taken decisive steps towards raising the US–ASEAN relations to a strategic level. During ASEAN’s 4th Annual Leaders Meeting, coinciding with the 35th anniversary of US–ASEAN relations, both parties agreed to institutionalize US presidential engagement by raising their meeting to the level of an annual leaders’ summit. That is, President Barack Obama and his successors will have to attend this high-level meeting every year. And, indeed, this use of soft–power involvement is welcome by ASEAN.


The challenge for the United States will be to remain consistent in its “soft” approach towards the region and to not overstep its bounds in the region. As it boasts itself a leader in the promotion of human rights and women’s rights throughout the world, the US will need to continue a dialogue with ASEAN on these issues. The Department of State’s Office of Global Women’s Issues is working ardently to ensure that the rights of women and girls are fully integrated into the formulation of conduct of US Foreign Policy. Partnering with White House, USAID, the Department of Defense, and other agencies, as well as with civil society and the private sector, the Department of State has launched “multiple and wide-ranging global initiatives” that seek to promote women’s social and economic development, integrate women into peace and security building, address and prevent gender-based violence, and ensure women’s full participation in civic and political life. One such initiative was the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Women and the Economy Initiative, which provides a mechanism to integrate gender consideration into APEC activities and provides policy advice on gender and equality issues. However, more can be done.


            Protecting and promoting Southeast Asian women’s rights cannot be just a top-down process; parallel efforts at the community-level should be actively done. An analogy for this is the making of a beloved Filipino rice cake called bibingka.  Bibingka is prepared from glutinous rice by soaking it then grinding into flour to make into dough. This delicacy is prepared by putting hot coals on top of a special bibingka stove to even out the cooking below; there is even heating so the rice cake is cooked from above and below. This is how ASEAN and the US could move forward. Agreements and policies at the regional level need to be complemented with programs and projects at the community level to ensure success in promoting and protecting women’s human rights. ASEAN already has its regional agreements and some regional institutions. The US could do more not only by engaging the ASEAN at the leader’s level but also by investing in programs and projects that empower women.


Among the concerns where ASEAN and the US could work together on concrete efforts is the protection of women who are migrating to other countries in search of work.  Increasingly, women in the region, especially from the Philippines and Indonesia, have become migrant workers leading to the phenomena of the feminization of migration. This is changing social and familial structures and increasing number of children growing up without the presence of their mothers, putting them at risk for abuse and neglect. ASEAN and the US could pool resources to draft national policies and implement programs that seek to mitigate and ultimately address the problems that families and societies are facing when women leave their families to work elsewhere. Projects such as halfway houses for abused and trafficked women could be done in ASEAN countries with US support. Coupled with livelihood projects that endeavor to empower women, these sanctuaries could work to ensure that Southeast Asian women who have been victims of abuse can live on and move forward with dignity and pride. The ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) Blueprint also identifies several opportunities for cooperation such as the 1) promotion of equal access to education for women and girls, 2) promotion of skills development for women, 3) providing access and learning opportunities on ICTs, 4) prevention of exploitation of women and girls using ICTs such as internet pornography, and other such aspirations that could find expression in concrete programs and projects. The protection and promotion of the rights of women, however, need to be continuous and evolving affair that ASEAN and strategic partners, such as the United States, should commit to without hesitation.


Women not only support the social fabrics of ASEAN member-states, they are increasingly becoming their economic backbones. Recalling the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), Goal 3 (Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women) and Goal 5 (Improve Maternal Health), there is consensus among the international community that women’s human rights are at the forefront of any development scheme, as their well being positively affects the rest of society as well.


Yet, their roles and their rights have not been fully recognized, protected, and promoted. Sexual and gender-based violence are increasingly prevalent in conflict-torn regions, disproportionately affecting women and children, and further impacting women’s rights to reproductive health as well as all areas of health and social welfare, particularly in our developing nations. In conflict areas such as in certain places in Myanmar, women bear the brunt of the impact of the fighting. The stateless Rohingya women have also now been forced to board boats to escape the violence directed against them. In Southern Mindanao of the Philippines, women are the most affected by years of insurgency and rebellion. Women have had to raise children under extreme conditions, had to deal with familial and kin conflicts, and have to play the role of peacemakers.


Historically, in many Southeast Asian societies women had privileged positions due to the acceptance of tracing ancestry both from maternal and paternal lines, which diluted strict patriarchal power. Southeast Asian women had a unique sphere of power and influence in households and societies of the pre-colonial era, with considerable autonomy in areas such as medicine, healing, and mysticism, which was considered their realm. The advent of colonialism brought with it, among other things, the degradation of women’s roles in societies, the diminishing of their influence in politics and public life, and placed enormous constraints on their fundamental freedoms. It is only right and just, therefore, that joint efforts in this area should intensify and deepen. The US could play a cooperative role with ASEAN. People to people exchanges, diplomacy, and concrete projects and programs could be instruments that will help the two parties to work together to promote and protect women’s human rights. The future of ASEAN will be shaped to a great extent by the contribution of its women. The ethical challenge therefore is to protect and promote their human rights as the community building process continues.

Julio Amador III

The Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University

Republic of the Philippines


Michele Cantos

The Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University

United States of America



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