Several Southeast Asian countries have experienced decades of conflicts and some are still undergoing post-conflict reconstruction. Yet, despite being a region where numerous religious and ethnic contestations, lengthy episodes of armed insurgencies, and high rates of sexual violence against women are a reality, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a grouping and its individual member states have engaged with UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325—on Women Peace and Security—only partially.
Although socio-economic statuses, formal rights and civil liberties of women in the region might have improved, ASEAN as an inter-governmental organisation continues to rely on a narrow interpretation of UNSCR 1325, skirting the essence of the Resolution’s focus on women’s political agency in peace and security related decision-making and implementation.
ASEAN’s Evolving Gender Discourse
For long, ASEAN has professed its commitment towards integrating gender perspectives through various committees and declarations in rhetoric, and has taken some actions to that end. For example, the ASEAN Committee on Women was instituted in 1976; the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women in the ASEAN region was adopted in 2004; the ASEAN Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children was established in 2009; the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Women was instituted in 2011.
However, these initiatives have predominantly focused on addressing gender-based violence, women’s economic empowerment, and advancing women’s basic rights—all of which are linked to ASEAN’s overarching goal of economic and social cohesion. While these aspects are equally crucial, disproportionately high attention is paid to the developmental aspects with limited to no attention paid towards enhancing women’s political agency.
Indeed, policymakers in ASEAN countries have not entirely overlooked the political dimension of women’s lives. However, their efforts towards meaningful transformation in this sphere have been scant. The imbalance between the emphases laid on women’s economic and social empowerment and women’s political agency has resulted in progress on the latter being elusive. Effort towards translating the specifically gendered and political account at the heart of UNSCR 1325 into action is pending institutionalisation. Moreover, women’s experiences and perspectives during armed conflicts and post-conflict efforts are either ignored or inadequately considered in policy making and implementation.
However, though inadequate, ASEAN has demonstrated willingness to go beyond its welfarist gendered discourse and engage more substantially with the WPS agenda. For example, in 2013, on behalf of the ASEAN bloc, Vietnam made the strongest statement in support of UNSCR 1325 at the UNSC Open Debate on WPS. This was followed by a workshop in 2015, organised by the ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation to raise awareness on UNSCR 1325. At the 2017 ASEAN summit, member states once again reiterated their commitment to promote and incorporate WPS values into their existing institutional structures, following which the ASEAN Women’s Peace Registry was launched in 2018 as a platform for knowledge sharing among women peace practitioners.
Yet, none of these efforts can be interpreted as formal institutionalisation of UNSCR 1325 as they have not specifically translated to promote women’s political participation or have directly encouraged their involvement in peace and conflict discussions. They do, however, serve as positive examples for bringing about a normative change in the ASEAN system on gender.
At present, there exists a considerable gap between the on-paper commitments regarding UNSCR 1325 at the ASEAN grouping level and the actualisation of its objectives in the domestic contexts of its member states. In political institutions in ASEAN countries, women continue to be excluded or underrepresented, and even where political participation has been made possible, affirmative action is negligible.
For instance, only 23.5 per cent women held ministerial positions in Indonesia; 18.5 per cent in Malaysia; 16.7 per cent in Singapore; 11.5 per cent in Laos; 10.3 per cent in Philippines; 9.4 per cent in Cambodia; 4 per cent in Vietnam; 3.7 per cent in Myanmar; 0 per cent in Thailand and Brunei up to 1 January 2019. In comparison, up to 1 January 2014, 1.8 per cent women held ministerial positions in Indonesia; 6.3 per cent in Malaysia; 5.9 per cent in Singapore; 11.5 per cent in Laos; 16 per cent in Philippines; 4.7 per cent in Cambodia; 9.1 per cent in Vietnam; 2.6 per cent in Myanmar; 8.3 per cent in Thailand and 0 per cent Brunei.
High-level positions in governments are even more elusive for women. Insofar, only Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Myanmar have had female representatives as their head of state and/or governments. The Philippines has had three female foreign ministers, and Indonesia and Myanmar have had one each. In terms of security institutions, the Philippines has had two female defence ministers, and Thailand, one.
Similarly, while women have featured in multiples roles in armed conflicts in the region—including as victims of the conflict, combatants and peace-builder—their participation and agency during formal peace negotiations remains limited.
To illustrate, over 600 women contribute to the Myanmar’s peace-building process and yet less than a quarter of them are delegates at the Union Peace Conferences. For example 86 out of 550 delegates (from all sectors excluding Ethnic Armed Organisations) at the 2017 peace conference were women. The increase in 2018 is only marginal, where 89 out of 550 delegates were women.
Overall, as a grouping and as individual member-states, ASEAN’s engagement with the full essence of UNSCR 1325 in action remains skin-deep despite progressive gender related commitments in rhetoric. There a long way to go before gender concerns are steered out of the periphery and into the centre of policymaking, especially in terms of women’s political participation and recognition of their varied experiences in conflict and/or post-conflict scenarios. Effective implementation of UNSCR 1325 will necessitate a much broader, balanced, sustained, multifaceted and multi-layered approach, one that also focuses robustly on guaranteeing women’s political participation as well as strengthening their leadership roles at various levels in all sectors.
Akanksha Khullar is a Researcher at the Centre for Internal and Regional Security at IPCS.
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