Note from the editor: This week, we are delighted to host Kate Walton, the author of the Solidaritas newsletter, to write our Impact Editor’s Note. Solidaritas provides fortnightly news on gender, women’s rights and feminism in Asia and the Pacific. Subscribe here.
Feminism is on the rise in Asia and the Pacific, but so is the backlash against it. More and more young people, especially women, are
identifying as feminist and are putting feminist values at the forefront of their political choices. The #MeToo movement has undeniably spurred this on, with many feminist movements taking up the issue of sexual violence and harassment as the key issues facing women, girls, and gender and sexual minorities.
However, this increased support for feminism is not welcomed by everyone. Conservative, right-wing, and religious groups across Asian and Pacific nations have been pushing back, arguing that feminist values are not in line with traditional local beliefs.
The most obvious example is the election of South Korea’s new president, Yoon Seok-youl, the conservative candidate who specifically targeted young men frustrated by Korean women’s increasing outspokenness and desire for
independence. During the election campaign, not only did Yoon say that systemic gender discrimination doesn’t exist in Korea – he even promised to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. I’d love to know how Yoon thinks this is an appropriate move in a country where thousands of sexually explicit videos were sold – without women’s consent – using cryptocurrency in secret chat rooms. Just 34% of women in their 20s voted for Yoon, compared to 59% of men of the same age group.
In Indonesia, women’s rights activists have finally seen success in their decade-long struggle to ratify a bill on sexual violence. Despite significant revisions by MPs that watered down the law’s provisions, the Law on Crimes of Sexual Violence was finally passed by the nation’s parliament on 12 April 2022. Activists across the country rejoiced, especially because the law does not only punish perpetrators but requires the state to provide support to survivors so that they can heal from their trauma. It is a substantial win in the face of strong opposition from conservative religious groups, who inaccurately claimed the law would
‘legalise’ same-sex relations (which are not criminalised in Indonesia anyway) and encourage pre-marital sex, due to the emphasis on consent.
Similar sentiments were seen from religious groups when Indonesia began implementing a ministerial regulation to prevent and handle cases of sexual violence at universities – its opponents argued that students would now be able to have sex anywhere, at any time, with anyone, even in public places on campus! These claims were designed to fire up conservatives and draw more people into the fight against what they describe as “Western liberal values”. Opponents took the ministerial
regulation to court, but, fortunately, the case was thrown out.
Malaysia has been looking on eagerly. Feminists there have been fighting for a similar law on sexual harassment for two decades, and report being essentially no closer now than they were when they started. The government promised to table the Sexual Harassment Bill in parliament in 2020, but decided to delay doing so because of the pandemic. This is despite research from the Women’s Aid Organisation finding that as many as 62% of Malaysian women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Women’s rights activists in Malaysia are thus keeping a close eye on Indonesia’s comparatively fast progress.
Meanwhile in the Pacific, women’s rights movements are trying hard to get more women into politics. The Pacific has the lowest level of women’s political representation in the world, but many womens’ rights groups are working to improve the situation. Papua New Guinea (PNG) is one of the region’s largest countries, with a population of around 9 million, yet only seven women have ever been elected to its parliament, and there are currently no female MPs. PNG heads to the polls in June this year, but a lack of legislated gender quotas
and strong socio-cultural factors mean that few women are likely to get elected. Vanuatu faces a similar situation – just five women have ever been elected, with the 2020 elections ending in an all-male parliament. Tonga, too, has no women in parliament, and the national congress of the Federated States of Micronesia has never had a female representative.
But there has been some good news in recent years in the Pacific: Samoa elected its first female prime minister, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, in 2021; Fiji currently has a record level of female representation in parliament (21.6%); and New Zealand appointed Nanaia Mahuta, a Māori woman, as Foreign Minister, making her the first member of parliament to wear a moko kauae (traditional Māori chin tattoo).
What does this all mean for the Asia-Pacific region? As with the women’s rights struggle in many places, it’s two steps forward, one step back. Small victories add up, despite the occasional serious setbacks, and with so many elections looming, especially in the Pacific, candidates and voters alike need to put women first.
As Indonesian educator, feminist icon, and national hero Raden Ajeng Kartini once wrote: habis gelap terbitlah terang – after darkness, there will be light.