Around the ASEAN Summit, the region’s women rally

UN Women, 20 November 2012

As world leaders meet in Phnom Penh to discuss the future of the region at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on 16 – 20 November, diverse civil society groups have been working to keep their fingers on the pulse and their voices at high volume.

Particularly vocal among these have been women’s rights groups, for whom the Summit and its People’s Forum are emotional rallying points – a chance to amplify issues being discussed by women in homes, civic spaces and workplaces across Southeast Asia. These range from gender-based violence to sustainable development priorities and the scarcity of female decision-makers.

At the Cambodian Women’s Forum, held in the lead up to the ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, a  member of the Cambodian Women’s Caucus takes notes as a campaign statement is drafted.  Credit: UN Women/Jo Baker

For one dynamic network, preparations have been long in the making. The Southeast Asia Women’s Caucus on ASEAN, a constellation of 55 women’s rights groups in 11 countries, has been connecting grassroots women with ASEAN’s decision makers on human rights since 2008, and approached the event as one of many entry points to the Association. Supported by UN Women, with funding from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the Caucus was formed to help women’s organizations better understand and work with ASEAN mechanisms.

This year, 13 women from the Caucus were sponsored to travel to Phnom Penh and join the rights campaigning and strategizing taking place around the ASEAN Summit. Each brought the concerns and demands of women’s groups in their countries, along with leadership skills honed in consultations and rights workshops.

Orchida Ramadhania, for example, comes from Indonesia’s ‘AKSI’, an organization she founded to campaign for gender, social and ecological justice.  Among other events she spoke in an NGO-organized session on the ASEAN economic community blueprint for 2015, and its potential impact on women. The blueprint is a master plan adopted to guide the founding of the ASEAN economic community in 2015. “It’s crucial for people to gather and work out our thoughts and ideas together about how to prepare for this integration,” she says. “Already with our experience here in Cambodia we’ve learned so much from the women; and we’ve got to know the situation of women in Thailand and Philippines, and how they organize themselves.”  

Other issues on the table have included the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD), which was adopted at the Summit in a landmark move for the region, but has been criticised for falling short of international standards and fails to adequately protect women in areas such as migration and sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Puspa Dewy and Wahida Rustam belong to Indonesia’s Solidaritas Perempuan, a member of the Southeast Asia Women’s Caucus. “It’s important to inform many stakeholders what will happen with the ASEAN Economic Community Blueprint,” says Rustam. “We will develop a strategy together on what we can do to ensure that this policy doesn’t make people, especially women’s situation, more poor and unjust.” Credit: UN Women/Jo Baker

Over the past few years the Caucus has seen its profile grow. It has been called into consultations with both the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) to transmit the network’s recommendations on issues such as the AHRD drafting process. Many members express hope in the strengthening of such two-way channels, despite concerns that their inputs are not always taken on board.  “We have been recognized as a group to reckon with at the ASEAN level,” says Sumitha Saanthinni Kishna, Executive Officer of the Bar Council Malaysia, and a Caucus Member. “Not a lot of regional groups get that opportunity right now. Some of the national groups have been having very good collaborations with their ACWC representatives,” she added. “So when they come to the regional consultation, they’re no strangers – and that helps.”

Mork Sergegodh (left), 20 is an Economics student at Panachiet University,
and a member of the CWC’s extremely active young women’s contingent.
“I feel that since I’m part of the ASEAN community, I should be a part of
making it better for women,” she says. “I want ASEAN to recognise
women and the skills they are capable of.” Credit: UN Women/Jo Baker


In Phnom Penh, Caucus members joined almost 60 other organizations in finalizing and endorsing an alternative draft of the AHRD, which they have called the ASEAN Peoples’ Human Rights Declaration.

Meanwhile in the Summit’s host country, a national women’s caucus on ASEAN, also supported by UN Women, is working to achieve similar recognition. Cambodian women have been meeting through their own caucus to produce more consistent advocacy messages on issues like land rights and access to health care. Its Women’s Forum last week was attended by over 200 women from across the country, many from rural areas, and produced a campaign statement for high level and broader public attention.


More than 160 women attended the Forum, which was supported by UN Women.
“It’s given me the bigger picture, and how to use it,”  says Yous Thuy, 56, of
the Women’s Caucus, who has worked for the KWWA in Cambodia’s Kratie
Province for nine years. “I want to take my experiences to the government
and ASEAN to make sure there is empowerment, education and protection
for migrant women in our laws”. Credit: UN Women/Jo Baker

“The Caucus has successfully helped us link women from rural and provincial levels,” says its chair Thida Khus, who is also Executive Director of Cambodian NGO, SILAKA and the new civil society representative to technical working group meetings on gender, chaired by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. “Before, women’s organizations were just doing their own thing, but now we bring all the issues together and advocate together. I think we have managed to build the infrastructure of a women’s movement here – and revitalize it.”

The Cambodian and broader Southeast Asia Caucuses have been working together to keep women informed and involved with the advocacy efforts, in what has been a challenging landscape, while also formulating statements on issues of critical concern to women in the ASEAN region. And while their impact of their actions on visiting leaders has yet to be assessed, the effect on many of the women themselves, their abilities and intentions, is indisputable. “ASEAN is the new arena for power and influence,” says Ramadhania. “It will be difficult to manage the situation and the issues that come if we as civil society and the women’s movement do not work in this arena, hand in hand.”

The Southeast Asia Women’s Caucus is funded by the Canadian International Development Agency, under UN Women’s project, Regional Mechanisms to Protect the Human Rights of Women and Girls in Southeast Asia