Despite the establishment of the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children, member states have dragged their feet in donating money to the commission, stalling its projects and work plan

First of two parts

MANILA, Philippines – In Southeast Asia, women are 8 times more likely to be abused by someone they know and trust.

Despite economic growth in the region, only 73 females are employed for every 100 males – their jobs often in vulnerable and low-paying sectors, such as agriculture. There are only 26 female employers for every 100 male employers.

And of the 800 women who die daily while giving birth, a third of those – 288 women – come from Asia-Pacific.

ASEAN is aware of the issues.

In 2012, the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) put together a 24-point Work Plan addressing issues ranging from trafficking of women and children to women participation in politics and decision making. It was a bold step with significant potential.

But today, only about 16% of projects in the 2012-2016 Work Plan has been completed.

Another 29% is in the works, but with only about a year or so left until their deadline, the ACWC will not successfully complete the plan by 2016. It expects to complete 11 of the 24 points. The rest will be re-evaluated and will either be dropped or included in the next Work Plan from 2016-2020.

A major reason for the stalls? Funding.

“In the Work Plan we have finished not in order of priority as we wanted because we didn’t have the initial funds to implement it, so we had to get funding from outside sources, from funding institutions,” Aurora Javate de Dios, the Philippine Representative to the ACWC on women’s rights, told Rappler.

De Dios explained that institutional funding, which comes from the contribution of each country, is only now coming in – 3 years since the Work Plan was formed. The slow pace of the funding meant that for the first years, the ACWC practically had to beg international organizations for money, scrambling to secure funds from UN women, USAID, the EU and even other UN governments – basically, anywhere but ASEAN.

This, despite the contribution per ASEAN country pegged only at $40,000.

Because the contribution is voluntary, the pace has varied for different countries, with no nation compelled to donate at any given time.

As of March 2015, 8 of the 10 member countries have pledged their support, but while the 8 can disburse funds anytime, the ACWC is still waiting for two other countries.

“Only if all pledge then we can start receiving,” ACWC Chairperson Datin Paduka Hajah Intan bte Haji Mohd Kassim of Brunei Darussalam said. “But the two countries promised that it’s only a matter of process, and in fact it will be done by the end of the year because the deadline is 2015.”

Without any seed money, Datin Intan said the ACWC has yet to set up a bank account so funds from donors who want to contribute to the commission, are unable to do so directly.

‘Least funded’

The ACWC, inaugurated in 2010, is a consultative, intergovernmental ASEAN body focused on the development of policies, programs and strategies to promote and protect women’s and children’s rights. The commission, which meets about twice annually, is composed of 20 representatives – two from each member state – one to represent women, the other to represent children.

But to civil society watching and depending on the ACWC, the formation of the commission is far from enough if it has little support from member countries themselves.

“You can tell this is one of the least funded divisions of ASEAN. I can’t imagine that they would have another area that would get less attention in terms of budget,” Kate Lappin, Regional Director of the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD), told Rappler in a Skype interview.

‘Even $40,000 – that’s ridiculous, that’s an insult to provide that small amount of money and even that small amount has not been delivered.’

The failure to contribute that amount – a number is decided by the ACWC by consensus – is one indication to Lappin of the low priority given to women’s right protection in the region, an afterthought to economic and political priorities that often get the highest attention.

De Dios said that unless the Committee of Permanent Representatives (CPR), ASEAN ambassadors from every member state, decides as a group to mandate the release of the funds, “it won’t move.”

“So it’s only happening now,” she said. “And that is why that is the percentage of the (Work Plan projects) we have completed or have started – because we have limitations in funding. Otherwise if we had funding we would have a lot more.”

Major projects

Three years into the Work Plan, however, the ACWC has managed to complete some major projects they take much pride in.

From the Work Plan, the 4 completed projects include the compilation of ASEAN best practices in eliminating violence against women (VAW) and children; a public campaign to stop VAW through media and activities; promoting convergence among the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) committees and ACWC; and the organization of a consultative meeting on cultural practices impacting children’s rights.

But the ACWC is proudest of one specific project: its Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Children, which was adopted by the heads of state of member countries at the 23rd ASEAN Summit.

“It was an initiative by us, drafted from scratch, by the ACWC. We take pride in that because we did it from A to Z. It was submitted to the Summit and we managed to get it adopted in 2013 in Brunei Darussalam,” Datin Intan said.

To ensure its success, Datin Intan said the ACWC is also working on two regional plans of action – one for women and another for children – that focus on the elimination of violence, as a follow up to the declaration.

“Sometimes a declaration can just be a declaration and no one wants to follow it up. So we in the ACWC thought we don’t want that declaration to be like that. Our declaration should be a living one, that should be active. We don’t only preach, but we do the work,” Datin Intan said.

The commission is also in the midst of creating the Network of Social Service Agencies (NOSA) in all 10 member countries. NOSA aims to upgrade and update social service agencies in the front lines, that are dealing with violence against women and children.

“That’s pretty much in the pipeline already. We’re finishing consultations and I think that will be implemented within the year. I think this would be an enduring legacy of the ACWC,” De Dios said.

‘Wall between Earth and ACWC’

Consultations – specifically with civil society – are another thing the ACWC has done well.

As the ACWC works to complete their regional plans of action, Datin Intan said they will be including non-governmental organizations in the discussions.

“ACWC is going to accommodate the NGOs we have engaged with in our Work Plan – there is an opportunity (for them). We are calling them in the process of forming not only the (next) Work Plan but also the regional plan of action. There will be an engagement of NGOs. In the past, they gave us expertise and we said, ‘This is great.’ So there will be new ideas when we frame the Work Plan and action plans,” she said.

Lappin is quick to agree that the ACWC has done well in opening up to groups like theirs, and praises the ACWC for its efforts to include civil society – at least on a regional level. Lappin said when the ACWC meets, civil societies from around the region are invited to take part in discussions and to contribute their input, but the situation begins to vary on the national level.

Depending on the country, NGOs have differing access to their ACWC national representatives, putting civil societies in certain member states at a significant disadvantage.

“One of the things that is important to do right now is where civil society have no access to their governments. The more oppressive the government the more important these bodies become,” she said.

“I know some of our members have been able to go to the meetings. Those that cannot access their representatives on a national level, they can only access in regional meetings. Representatives are from the government so they at least have a vehicle to raise these concerns in that environment that otherwise wouldn’t be raised.”

Lappin said this has been the value of the ACWC, which has allowed some civil societies “to grow and collaborate regionally.”

But for Reasey Seng of SILAKA, which works to promote gender equality in Cambodia, the regional meetings are just not enough for them to address their issues regarding women’s rights, especially given their government’s resistance to civil society.

Letters and request for dialogue, she said, often go unanswered, and meetings must be approved by the Minister of Women’s Affairs – something that has never happened.

“Sometimes we feel like – there’s a wall between earth and the ACWC,” she told Rappler.

“It’s only in the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia where representatives really faithfully have consultation workshops with civil societies. I hope they reconsider to open up again for meaningful engagement,” she said. “I hope our representative can learn from the ways of the others.” – Rappler.com