Photo by Merrindahl Andrew
The year 2020 will mark the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action (1995), which affirmed that gender equality is a human right and a condition for social justice. From 24 to 26 November 2019 a Beijing+25 civil society forum for the Asia-Pacific region was held in Bangkok, Thailand. The Forum was organised for civil society actors to celebrate achievements, identify concerns, and facilitate intergenerational dialogue and solidarity between constituencies represented. The widespread and complex nature of violence of gender-based violence was discussed with attendees working in civil society attending from various countries at the Forum.
AWAVA’s Program Manager, Dr Merrindahl Andrew, attended the Forum and this article reflects on the discussions there. The article is co-authored by former AWAVA Administration and Communications Assistant Sumithri Venketasubramanian together with Merrindahl, drawing on her notes from the Forum. It is not able to fully encapsulate the breadth and richness of all the discussions that occurred in the Forum, as facilitated by feminists and women’s rights activists from across the region.
Speakers at the Forum articulated how the struggle for women’s rights, gender equality and human rights has achieved some gains in the 25 years since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. The passing of laws to protect the rights of women lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer (LGBTIQ+) people, a strong and organised feminist and women’s movement, and growing inclusiveness of feminist movements as well as stronger linkages between women’s rights and feminist movements and other social justice movements were some of the examples raised.
But all these positive changes have not been sufficient to end violence against women and girls. At the Forum, this violence was identified as a major continuing issue worldwide. Rather than being concentrated in certain areas, women in diverse societies all over the world are subjected to violence. Gender-based violence may be experienced in any part of life: at home, at work, in institutional settings, in public and/or online. The way that violence is used, as well as the way women respond, are shaped by interconnected global and local forces. This blog post explores some of the themes that underpin and contribute to gender-based violence at a global scale, drawing from points raised at the Forum.
The Forum touched on self-determination as a key area that still needs progress in order to achieve women’s rights and safety. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007) highlights self-determination as a fundamental human right, meaning that Indigenous peoples have the right to “freely determine their political status and economic, social, and cultural development”. This right continues to be violated by colonial nation-states, with impacts contributing to high rates of violence against Indigenous women. This is the case in Australia as in many other countries. but Indigenous Elders and human rights activists maintain their demand for self-determination.
Globalisation and economics
Presentations at the Forum highlighted how the disadvantaged economic situation of women, such as lacking financial security and access to supports and services, is a key factor that underpins and perpetuates gender-based violence.
Today’s economies are mostly focused on growing and harnessing capital and, at an individual level, on one’s ability to perform economically productive work. However, what counts as economically productive work – that individuals are paid for – is very gendered, with some forms of work not recognised for what they are. These unpaid roles contribute to women average earning less than men. The resulting financial dependence is a form of a power imbalance, due to the centrality of money in economies internationally. This dynamic can be exploited in the use of violence, taking control and autonomy away from women.
The Forum also highlighted that many people are participating in what is known as the “informal” economy. Informal activities are not taxed or monitored by the government, meaning that they are difficult to regulate. (They are not necessarily activities that are against the law, they may just operate outside of formal institutions.) Women are more represented in the informal economy, so they may have less access to supports and workplace protections than people in formal sectors. Barriers to information and accessing services are also faced by women in rural areas and with limited access to the internet. The autonomy and livelihoods of women are often severely impacted by corporations and economic forces. Global institutions such as international trade agreements are not only facilitating these negative impacts but in some cases requiring governments to suppress women’s protests against them. On the converse, just a tiny percentage of development funding meant to be for women’s empowerment is going to women’s rights organisations.
Rights for whom?
Presentations at the forum noted how, in economies that value maximising capital, people are expected to be “productive members of society”. The opportunities and access to employment, however, are not equal for everyone. Societal prejudice where rigid, binary gender norms underpin violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ+) people may be present in workplaces that are unsafe, and that creates a barrier to financial security. Participants noted there is a lack of data on transgender women experiencing violence specifically, meaning that the experiences of this significant group of women are not properly documented or addressed.
Inaccessible workplaces limit opportunities for women with disabilities, with presentations showing how this further entrenches unequal power dynamics and dependence upon family members, partners, carers and/or medical professionals. Dependence is expected of people with disability, and so not enough focus is given to making rights and agency accessible through obtaining information and accessing legal processes. The experience of living with a disability is often de-gendered, meaning that the specific experiences of women with disability are not considered through the lens of gender.
Sessions explored how the relationship between bodily autonomy, mental health, disability, and gender is complex. For example, LGBTIQ+ people may be subject to stigma on the basis of their gender identity, sexual orientation, sex or intersex status, and perhaps perceived to be mentally ill. As a result, they may be subject to non-consensual procedures and violence in order to change them to meet what is expected of them socially or in religion. This includes harmful medical procedures on intersex people with the goal to ‘normalise their bodies to fit a rigid male/female binary. The sexual and reproductive rights of women with disability are often not respected, and asserting sexuality and agency is a part of asserting their human rights. Women with disabilities may have their autonomy to make choices taken away through forced sterilisation, abortion and contraception.
Migration and the role of governments
While state sovereignty is a fundamental principle in international law, in a world where more people are moving across nation borders than ever the Forum considered the gaps that exist for women experiencing violence in the context of this movement. People’s movements across borders may be voluntary or forced, or may represent choices made between limited options. There is no one story or narrative that can explain migration and forced displacement; it can be empowering and/or disempowering – even for the same person. There is a lack of recognition about how migrant experiences are shaped by gender, such as mental health issues arising from gender- and ethnicity-based discrimination and violence in the workplace. Violence itself may be a reason for women to leave their home countries; however there are gaps in policies and laws that recognise gender-based violence to be justification for seeking asylum, as well as a lack of recognition of the experiences of LGBTIQ+ people in migration, asylum seeking and family reunion.
The Forum noted how changes in economic activity, such as the mechanisation of agricultural work, can lead to women being forced to move elsewhere to find work and sustain livelihoods. Union activities may be undermined by corporations, and where trade unions are present, they may be patriarchal and hostile to women and migrant workers.
Threats against human rights defenders (especially women and LGBTIQ+ people) by governments and the active persecution and suppression of civil society undermine the important work being done by women activists and advocates in countries all over the world. Governments ought to be held to account, but speakers at the Forum noted that the current international regime means that non-violent intervention to resist domestic human rights violations is close to impossible in many places. Perpetrators of violence who are in another country to a victim/survivor are not brought to justice as a result of this, and governments may not take responsibility and action for violence committed by their citizens in other countries.
Presentations to the Forum highlighted that, on a global scale, communities that have contributed the least to the acceleration of climate change are bearing the brunt of the negative impacts. This difference is largely class-based, both comparing rich and poor countries, and comparing communities within nation-state borders. The inequalities, challenges and factors leading to gender-based violence are further exacerbated by other stressors. Natural disasters, whose frequency and scale are becoming more extreme and unpredictable with climate change, introducing additional stressors that may contribute to the use of violence. Existing gendered power gaps within families and relationships are widened. Women, who are represented more greatly in the agricultural sector than men in many countries, have their livelihoods threatened and may face displacement as a result.
The global crisis of gender-based violence is grave and urgent, and the Forum heard about opportunities for strengthening efforts and movements to address it. There are international processes and instruments that are meant to support the work being done by civil society organisations and activists, such as the General Resolution 35 (GR35) of the Convention to End all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW),which outlines steps for protection of victims/survivors, prevention, accountability for perpetrators and coordination of responses. The Istanbul Convention can be further used to promote the GR35, serving as a clear roadmap for states, and a means to hold governments to account.
Creating new research, data and evidence can serve to not only understand the extent and complexity of gender-based violence, but also to highlight the urgency of addressing it. It is important that research is connected right down to the grassroots level, rather than as a top-down project that is distant from the work being done on the ground. Presentations to the Forum noted that when documenting the situations of people, researchers must understand the specific oppressions that they are facing as a precondition. Participants highlighted the need for actions at all levels and scales, and expanding common ground across parts of the movement as opposed to focusing on the differences between strategies.
Continuing activism in all settings is needed to send a strong message from the public about dissatisfaction with the current state of gender-based violence and violence against women. The Forum heard about the upcoming Women’s Global Strike on 8 March 2020 as an opportunity for advocates of gender equality all over the world to make a stand, demanding to their governments and governments around the world that ending gender-based violence is a top priority, and we will not stop until justice and safety are achieved.
Suggestions for further reading
Australia’s country statement to the Intergovernmental meeting: https://www.unescap.org/sites/default/files/Australia%20%28B%2B25%29%20Item%202.pdf
Civil society statement to the Intergovernmental Meeting drawing on discussions at the Civil Society Forum:
Outcome document from the Intergovernmental meeting:
Civil society responses and further analysis:https://apwld.org/press-release-women-and-gender-rights-activists-deeply-disappointed-with-regional-outcome-on-human-rights/
Davis, M., 2012. Aboriginal Women: The Right to Self-Determination. Delivered at Murrup Barak, Melbourne Institute for Indigenous Development, University of Melbourne. 8 November 2012. Accessed at: https://www.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/AUIndigLawRw/2012/6.pdf
Griffin, P., 2010. Gender, governance and the global political economy. Australian Journal of International Affairs. 64(1): 86-104.
International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 2018. The Responsibility to Prevent and Respond to Sexual and Gender-based Violence in Disasters and Crises. 24 July 2018. Kuala Lumpur/Geneva. Accessed at:
Kuokkanen, R., 2012. Violence Against Women, Indigenous Self-Determination and Autonomy in Sami Society. L’Image du Sápmi 2. Ed. K. Anderson, pp. 436-452. Örebro University Press, 2013. Accessed at: https://rauna.files.wordpress.com/2007/10/2012-violence-against-women-self-determination-and-autonomy-in-sami-society.pdf
United Nations, 2007. UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 13 September 2007. Accessed at: https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/un-declaration-rights-indigenous-peoples-1
Women with Disabilities Australia, 2017. Submission to the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Study on the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights of Girls with Disabilities. 19 May 2017. Accessed at: