2009 Nov 25
November 25, 2009

Despite laws, Asean women still suffer

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Home to approximately 600 million people, Southeast Asia is no idyllic sanctuary for women but rather, for many of them, a dangerous place to live.

It is not a public security threat that endangers their lives and well-being, but the physical and verbal torture at home from their own intimate partners _ their husbands and boyfriends.

Today marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. But wives, mothers, daughters and sisters in the region have little reason to celebrate; instead they must demand not only more protective legislation but indeed an overhaul of the entire justice system _ a need to change the mindset of male-dominated law enforcement agencies.

As national leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) have recently embraced a new economic cooperation plan at the conclusion of their meeting in Hanoi, the existing problem of domestic violence, if not resolved, is likely to remain a challenge to their economic ambitions.

During the past decade, virtually all Asean member countries have introduced legislation to stem domestic violence against women. The correct intentions notwithstanding, the outcome of such legislation has been vastly different.

From Thailand to Vietnam, Malaysia to Indonesia, women are still subjected to harsh forms of abuse such as beating, threats, and extreme physical torture, as reported by lawmakers and gender equality advocates from the region, who recently gathered in Yogyakarta, Indonesia to discuss solutions to this problem.

For example, in Indonesia the number of reported cases concerning domestic violence last year reached 143,586 _ a 263% increase from 2008.

Thailand introduced the Anti-Domestic Violence Law in 2007, but it has rarely been enforced since police and society usually see the problem of domestic violence as a personal matter and are wary of intervening.

Throughout Asean, domestic violence laws have failed most women when it comes to legal application. This is mainly due to the lack of enabling mechanisms within the justice system, social taboos regarding the problem, and women’s economic dependency on their partners.

Activists from the Friends of Women Foundation stage a roadside performance in Bangkok about domestic violence, as part of their campaign to reduce violence against women.

Violence within one’s marriage has remained an unresolved and culturally sensitive issue.

“Victims are often reluctant to report cases of domestic violence to the relevant authorities,” Vietnamese MP Nguyen Hong Dien told her regional counterparts. With domestic and other marital laws in place for years, leaders at all administrative levels in Vietnam are still not very interested in this aspect, she said.

Both victims and law enforcers believe domestic violence is a private, family-related issue that should be solved at home, she said. The situation is the same for many women in other Asean countries, especially in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Being a battered, raped, abandoned or divorced woman is a serious taboo and not an alternative for those who fear cultural resistance. This has made victims reluctant to come forward and thus continue to live under victimised conditions throughout their lifetimes.

Even though some of them are courageous enough to report their cases, the culture of impunity usually lets abusers off the hook, as police officers are less likely to treat the cases as crime.

Without punishment being imposed on abusers, the meeting’s participants felt that problems of domestic violence will continue.

“Whenever there are complaints filed by women, they must be followed by investigation by the police,” said Shiv Khare, executive director of the Asian Forum of Parliamentarians on Population and Development, the agency which organised the meeting.

Such progress would ensure victimised women that it is beneficial for them to speak out and fight for justice.

“There is a need to overhaul the entire judiciary system and the police in the region,” Mr Khare said.

To challenge the culture of impunity, many lawmakers believe there must be “re-education” given to police and court officers, including judges, so that they will consider family-related violence as criminal acts.

This is to break the social taboo on domestic violence. Punishment will send a strong message to potential abusers that this is a crime.

Sugiri Syarief, chairman of Indonesia’s National Family Planning Coordinating Board, advocated for all laws to be socialised and implemented.

To do so, commitments from both governments and parliaments are needed for further support in areas of legislation, budgeting and compliance monitoring, he said.

Philippe Doneys, a gender and development expert at the Bangkok-based Asian Institute of Technology, noted that lack of police action on domestic cases and the existence of a male-dominated court system means the laws of each country, despite good intentions, can only deliver divergent results.

To bring about change, these agencies must firstly create an enabling environment for women to feel safe whenever they report or fight domestic cases, he said.

This is required due to the reality that women who came out and fought usually ended up having to endure further victimisation by their partners.

While the implementation of such laws is desperately needed, improvement of existing laws or introduction of new ones remains necessary in many countries. The first and foremost task is the streamlining of the criminal code and domestic violence laws in each country.

“Criminal law sets the bar very high in recognising guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Often victims need to have a witness or evidence,” said Mr Doneys.

In Indonesia, an overlapping of the two laws means women are not well-protected. Indonesian legislators said the criminal code there overrides the domestic violence law because it allows perpetrators to be punished only if they are not the spouses of the victims.

Another major issue is the economic dependence of women on their partners.

Several times, the lawmakers said, many victimised wives chose to stay silent for fear of abandonment.

Inequalities in income and job opportunities have also forced them to live with no other choices.

While bridging income and career gap between genders can help reduce the problem, national and regional governmental bodies cannot afford to stay aloof from this issue, especially when it concerns regional economic growth, they said. The economic cost of gender-based violence in the region has not been tabulated and some lawmakers see this as a necessary step that must be taken.

“Domestic violence has enormous social and economic costs, and is one of the biggest roadblocks to genuine and sustainable human development and poverty reduction,” Congressman Edcel Lagman of the Philippines said.

The public costs of the issue can be massive and will definitely eat away at the already limited budgets for social services in developing countries, he said. These include medical expenses and rehabilitation for victims, and loss of work hours for both the victim and perpetrator.

“This can be a compelling enough reason for government officials and policy-makers to ensure the eradication of violence against women,” said Congressman Lagman. -http://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/208016/despite-laws-asean-women-still-suffer