By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
From self-immolating nuns in Tibet and dogged Uyghur petitioners in China to ethnic groups battling sexual violence in Burma and refugees exposing abuses in North Korea, women in Asia are rising up in pursuit of human rights, social justice and political power.
As experts reflect on the great strides Asian women have made in politics, education, business and health in conjunction with International Women’s Day on Thursday, they believe the region remains gripped by gender-based discrimination despite economic progress.
“[I]t’s sad to see that despite huge economic progress in parts of … Asia, we have not made enough dent in truly understanding that women’s rights are human rights,” New York-based Asia Society President Vishakha Desai told RFA.
“One could argue that, in fact, economic modernization and social regression may be related,” she argues. “The more people feel their own values are being challenged by rapid modernization, the more they try to cling [to] something like [a] security blanket.”
Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of the U.N. Women organization, called for women’s “full and equal” participation in the political and economic arena, saying it is “fundamental to democracy and justice, which people are demanding.”
While women renew demands for freedom and equality in Asia, in North Korea, one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world, even whispering the need for political reform can land one in a labor camp for life.
North Koreans accused of political offenses are usually sent to a forced labor camp, according to testimonies of those fleeing the nuclear-armed hardline communist state.
North Korea’s chronic food shortages are also putting pressure on Korean women to get meals on the table for their families.
“Many have been forced to roam the countryside in search of food, medicine and other daily necessities,” said T. Kumar, international advocacy director at Amnesty International.
To evade food shortages, North Korean women flee the border into China but they face even worse problems there—abuses by human traffickers or the grim specter of being deported back home where they may be executed.
“A growing number of women have been forced to turn to prostitution to feed themselves and their hungry families,” Kumar said.
North Korean women suspected of becoming pregnant in China and repatriated back home also have to undergo forced abortions.
Border guards “beat the bellies of pregnant North Korean females who had been repatriated because their unborn babies were half Chinese,” said Suzanne Scholte, chairwoman of the North Korea Freedom Coalition.
In Tibet, women, especially nuns, are braving Chinese security clampdowns to protest against Beijing’s rule, shrugging off the risk of being thrown in jail.
Having established a long tradition of peacefully protesting against rights abuses, the Tibetan women have lately resorted to self-immolations to underline their resentment against Chinese policies.
Five women—including three nuns—have been among 26 Tibetans who set themselves on fire over the last five months to protest a crackdown of monasteries and the erosion of language and other cultural rights.
“Nuns play an incredibly significant role in political activism, because they symbolize in many ways the marginalized, the oppressed and the minority,” said Yangdon Dhondup, a Tibetan religious studies expert at the University of London.
The Tibetan nuns began stepping up political activism in the 1980’s and have regained a key role in society.
“Because of their gender, they are considered as inferior by Tibetan society, within the religious hierarchy, nuns are inferior to their male counterparts and as an ethnic group, they count as a minority,” Dhondup said.
“By staging these non-violent protests, nuns are seen by the society as heroic figures and were thus able to raise the status and reputation of women and nuns within Tibetan society.”
In another restive region in China—in northwestern Xinjiang—women are also in the forefront of the struggle for political and social reforms.
Petitioners from the minority Uyghur women community have been persistently confronting the Chinese authorities on issues such as land seizures, ethnic discrimination, human trafficking, population policy and labor abuses, according to activist groups.
“Thousands of Uyghur women and young girls have been removed from their communities and families in [Xinjiang] and placed into abusive and poor working conditions in eastern China” under a forced labor transfer program, said Rebiya Kadeer, a U.S.-based Uyghur woman rights activist.
She said Chinese authorities have also introduced “coercive and abusive” population planning practices on Uyghur women in areas of the Uyghur region with predominantly non-Han populations, including forced abortions and sterilizations.
Xinjiang has been gripped for years by ethnic tensions between the Muslim Uyghurs and the rapidly growing Han Chinese migrant population.
The average woman in China is also a victim of the government’s policies.
“Although the government acknowledges that domestic violence, employment discrimination, and discriminatory social attitudes remain acute and widespread problems, it continues to stunt the development of independent women’s rights groups and discourages public interest litigation,” Human Rights Watch said in its latest annual report.
Sex workers, numbering four to 10 million, remain a particularly vulnerable segment of the population due to Beijing’s “harsh” policies and regular mobilization campaigns to crack down on prostitution, the group said.
In Southeast Asia, women appear to be making waves in politics and stamping their presence on corporate boardrooms, but still face an uphill struggle in addressing rights abuses and health issues, especially in rural areas.
Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has emerged from years of house arrest and is contesting the first open elections for a seat in parliament that could lay the foundation for national leadership in a country that had been under decades of harsh military rule.
Still, while political reforms take shape, Burmese ethnic women continue to face sexual and other abuses by the military as the government attempts to end years of fighting with armed ethnic groups.
Burma’s military has been accused of practicing gang rape against ethnic minority women as a “weapon of war.”
In fighting with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in northern Burma in the middle of last year, local women’s rights groups reported high levels of sexual violence with more than 35 women and girls raped in the first two months of the battle alone, Human Rights Watch said.
Its interviews with former soldiers and their civilian victims have revealed a “[military] culture of almost recreational sadism,” the group’s senior Burma researcher David Mathieson said.
Poverty also remains a problem in the region and governments are encouraged to pour more resources into education as a strategy to keep the issue at bay.
In Cambodia, 48 percent of rural women are illiterate compared to only 14 percent of rural men, a U.N. Women report said.
In Vietnam, the U.N. group quoted a study showing one in three, or 32 percent, of married women have suffered physical or sexual violence from their husbands at some time in their lives.
Over half of women, 58 percent, experience physical, mental and sexual violence during their life, it said.
“[W]hile tremendous progress has been made, no country can claim to be entirely free from gender-based discrimination,” Director of U.N. Women Bachelet said.
“This inequality can be seen in persistent gender wage gaps and unequal opportunities, in low representation of women in leadership in public office and the private sector, in child marriage and missing girls due to son preference, and in continuing violence against women in all its forms.”