It was a clarion call for human rights in Southeast Asia—and its sounding was most timely. At the 23rd summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations last week in Brunei, the leaders of the 10-member bloc adopted declarations calling for the elimination of violence against women and children and for the improvement of people’s access to social protection.
In the first declaration, the Asean leaders pledged that their countries would take “all appropriate measures” and a “holistic, multidisciplinary approach” to achieve the goal. “Violence against women and … children occur irrespective of the stages of the life cycle, whether at home, in school … as a result of gender bias, discriminatory and harmful practices, and must be eliminated,” part of the declaration read. The leaders emphasized that this new measure stretched to the relatively blurry borders of cyberspace, a territory where violence against women and children goes virtually unpunished. In the other declaration, the leaders pledged their support for “equitable access to social protection” for the less privileged, including the disabled, the elderly and the poor.
This is a noteworthy development in a region where women and, by extension, children, are traditionally deemed inferior and therefore powerless. Asean countries have generally been bogged down by dangerous, antiquated concepts concerning gender and equality, some due to religion, others to societal mores. The declaration on the elimination of violence against women and children is a small step forward for the region as a whole.
Present at the summit was President Aquino of the Philippines, who has a weighty job ahead of him when it comes to carrying out both the letter and the spirit of the first declaration. A 2008 survey by the National Statistics Office showed that one in five women between the ages of 15 and 49 has been abused physically since age 15, and that one in 10 women in the same age bracket was abused sexually. And according to the Philippine National Police, the number of cases of violence against women increased by 23.3 percent from 2011 to 2012, with the 11,531 reported cases being the highest ever recorded by it.
Not that the Philippines is lacking a pertinent law to protect those who need protection. Republic Act No. 9262 prohibiting “violence against women and their children” was signed into law in March 2004 by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. It reads in part: “The State values the dignity of women and children and guarantees full respect for human rights. The State also recognizes the need to protect the family and its members, particularly women and children, from violence and threats to their personal safety and security.” This rather comprehensive piece of legislation seems to cover most if not all of the abusive and humiliating acts carried out against women and children, with the exception of crimes committed in cyberspace. A bill filed last July by Sen. Nancy Binay would potentially fill this gap. Additionally, the Expanded Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2012 helps protect victims of sex trafficking.
As in other laws, enforcement is key. The rampant and continued incidents of violence against women and children indicate that the law is not enough; it needs to be implemented thoroughly and properly.
It is not enough for Mr. Aquino to sign legislation such as RA 10620, which seeks to protect children from exposure to toys that contain chemicals hazardous to their health. The signing last month of RA 10627, the Anti-Bullying Act of 2013, is indicative of more meaningful and proactive protection of children. Also, efforts to curb if not completely stop the illegal employment of children, especially the impoverished, need the boost of the Asean declaration, particularly in a country where their exploitation is commonplace.
Asean leaders have made a necessary move in adopting the declarations calling for stamping out violence against women and children and for upholding equal access to social protection. It is up to the individual countries—the Philippines, particularly—to follow through on the stirring words with vigorous action.