What has ASEAN Done for Women's Rights?

Yi Qian Chan (Beau), Strategic Development Director (2020/21)


7 min read


ASEAN was originally established in 1967 to foster economic, security and political cooperation between the middle powers. It was not until the 1980s that the regional governing body began taking initiative to address women's issues via regional cooperation as well as national policies, in line with an international trend towards developing legislative frameworks guaranteeing women's rights. The ASEAN Human Rights Declaration has laid out, in its General Principles, women's rights as "an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of human rights and fundamental freedoms". The ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community 2025, too, has identified strategic measures to reduce barriers faced by women and girls, promote and protect human rights, and ensure equitable access for all.

ASEAN mechanisms for the protection of women's rights

Some regional instruments geared towards realising the aim of women's empowerment in ASEAN communities and across a variety of issues include:

  1. Declaration on the Advancement of Women in the ASEAN Region (1988)

  2. Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women in the ASEAN Region (2004)

  3. Ha Noi Declaration on the Enhancement of the Welfare and Development of ASEAN Women and Children (2010)

  4. Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Elimination of Violence Against Children (2013)

  5. ASEAN Regional Plan of Action on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (2015)

  6. ASEAN Regional Plan of Action on the Elimination of Violence Against Children (2015)

  7. ASEAN Declaration on the Gender-responsive Implementation of ASEAN Community Vision 2025 and the Sustainable Development Goals (2017)

From 2004, there began calls for the creation of a regional body dedicated "to [promoting and protecting] the rights of women and children to ensure their equitable development in the region". At the turn of a new decade, the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) was finally inaugurated on 7 April 2010 in Ha Noi, Viet Nam, on the occasion of the 16th ASEAN Summit.

ACWC is mandated to:

  1. Promote the implementation of international and ASEAN instruments on the rights of women and children.

  2. Advocate on behalf of women and children, especially the most vulnerable and marginalised, and encourage ASEAN member states to improve their situation.

  3. Promote public awareness and education about the rights of women and children in ASEAN, including through promoting research on the situation and well-being of women and children.

  4. Assist, upon request by ASEAN Member States, in fulfilling their international human rights reporting obligations on women and child rights.

  5. Encourage ASEAN Member States to collect and analyze sex disaggregated data, and undertake periodic reviews of national legislation, policies, and practices related to the rights of women and children.

  6. Facilitate the sharing of experiences and good practices between ASEAN Member States in order to improve implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

  7. Support the participation of ASEAN women and children in dialogue and consultation processes in ASEAN related to the promotion and protection of their rights.

Issues pertaining to women that were discussed at the 20th ACWC meeting last year included:

  1. The ASEAN Gender Mainstreaming Strategic Framework.

  2. The Mid-Term Review of the Regional Plan of Action on the Elimination of Violence against Women (RPA-EVAW).

  3. The ASEAN campaign on Ending Gender-Based Workplace Exploitation through knowledge and music.

  4. ACWC’s visibility.

  5. The Legal Identity of All Women and Children in ASEAN: A Regional Synthesis.

  6. The ASEAN Regional Study on Women, Peace and Security (WPS).

How has ASEAN failed women?

As can be seen from above, the ACWC may have produced an impressive body of research literature on the conditions afflicting ASEAN women over the past decade, but the unfortunate truth is that it is limited in its ability to implement relevant policies (whether at national or regional levels). There is a lack of intra-governmental co-ordination and support within member states, as well as poor public visibility of said efforts, if any at all. To top it off, funding constraints and meagre secretarial support has certainly handicapped the rollout of much-needed programmes and activities for the welfare of women.

While ASEAN celebrates significant growth in the region's economy over the past decade, the acquired wealth has not been distributed fairly to SEA women, with their wages being 30% lower than their male counterparts. Malaysia and Myanmar are ranked by the World Economic Forum (WEF) among the worst performing ASEAN countries in terms of gender parity, ranking 104th and 114th respectively. In addition, “on average women are 70 percent less likely than men to be in the labour force. This gap persists despite economic growth, decreasing fertility rates, and increasing education.” Gender-based discrimination in the workplace persists, with pregnant mothers especially being targeted via making their positions redundant, denying promotions, placing them on prolonged probation, demotion and even termination.

For ASEAN to truly be credited for its developmental progress, no policy or strategy can be complete, or indeed accepted, without recognition of the contributions of women to the economy. However, for them to fare well in the workforce, there must also be protective measures in place against violence and harassment that often plagues women in the workplace.

According to the United Nations (UN), Southeast Asia has one of the highest rates of violence against women. Sadly, for many SEA women, the violence inflicted upon them is not only a daily reality, but also comes from all sides: the state, society, and not uncommonly, from their own family members and domestic partners. This can be attributed to harmful, deeply-rooted misogynistic attitudes still prevalent among certain cultures. The World Health Organisation (WHO)'s 2019 data estimated that the range of percentage of women who have experienced either physical or sexual violence went from 6% in Singapore to 44% in Thailand. Sexual harassment can take place anywhere: from roadsides, to public transportations, to the workplace, and even on social media - sexist and misogynistic language proliferates, and often escalates further into actual threats upon the safety and lives of the women being targeted. Needless to say, these different, colourful forms of gender-based violence pose significant risk to the health, income, social interactions and career advancement of women. A deep-seated culture of fear regarding speaking up about their ordeals is hard to dispel when women have traditionally been silenced and disbelieved even when they do pick up the courage to come forward, which could have long-term implications upon their willingness to speak up on other urgent topics that need their input, such as the wage gap or women's healthcare policies.

There is also a need to recognise and address the policy dissonance between the regional integration frameworks and the reality of women's migration patterns in the region. Current migration processes are cumbersome and riddled with loopholes which recruiters, employers and nefarious middlemen take advantage of in order to exploit vulnerable women workers. Migrants must have access to decent work equivalent to men, as well as opportunities for skills development linked to high-growth sectors with plenty of job opportunities, beyond gender stereotypes.

Case study: Underrepresentation of women in politics enabled the Myanmar military coup of February 2021

While there have been many women holding positions of power in Southeast Asia, female representation in the governments of many ASEAN countries is still very much lacking. A dangerous example of the possible events that might transpire when women are underrepresented in politics can be seen in the Myanmar military junta of February 2021:

  • The 2008 constitution excluded women from key ministerial positions, a provision which was regularly weaponised by the Union Civil Service Board to bar applications from women for mid- and junior-level positions as well.

  • The 2011-2015 peace process between the military and ethnic armed groups was a deal involving almost exclusively men; few women were allowed to take part in negotiations or monitoring of the ceasefire.

  • The military retained the right to appoint 25% of parliamentary seats, and restricted criteria for holding certain ministerial positions to only those with a military background, effectively hamstringing women's political inclusion due to women only recently being allowed to serve in the military. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) only elected one woman to both the 2015 and 2020 parliaments. The military appointed only 10% of women to national, state and regional legislative chambers in 2020. The military quota makes reform unlikely because any constitutional amendment to address discrimination requires 75% approval.

  • The patriarchy of the military is reflected in the non-military political parties, notwithstanding Suu Kyi’s leadership. The parties are gatekeepers to women’s representation. But they have generally not taken steps to improve women’s political participation.


While there are certainly no shortage of regional instruments in place catering towards women, in light of International Women's Day, with the continued inaction of ASEAN leaders towards resolving the pressing matters listed above, one can only wonder how much longer this approach will be tolerated by the people of the region, not to mention the potential loss of respect that the entity holds at an international level. The diversity of the region necessitates a unity amongst ASEAN member states, particularly in cultivating political will to implement reforms that promote the participation and empowerment of women, the protection of their rights, and overall, improve the condition of women and other gender-diverse communities across the region.


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2) The ASEAN Post. (2020). Fighting for women’s rights in ASEAN. Retrieved from :  https://theaseanpost.com/article/fighting-womens-rights-asean 

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9) World Economic Forum. (2019). Global Gender Gap Report 2020. Retrieved from : http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GGGR_2020.pdf