Amidst Multiple Crises: Women’s Fight for Survival, Safety, Security, Justice, and System Change

The Asian Peoples’ Movement on Debt and Development (APMDD) stands in solidarity with women all over the world in raising their voice against all forms of gender-based violence and in calling for an end to the systemic discrimination, marginalization and exploitation that millions of women in Asia contend with every day. This year’s observance of “16 Days of Activism against Gender-based violence” – an annual tradition started by women and adopted by the international community – takes special significance as we face the multiple crises of health, economic recession and climate emergency. The increased gender-based violence amidst these crises underscores the urgency of women’s fights for survival, safety, security, and justice, and calls attention to the systemic and structural issues that lie at the root causes of violence, inequality, and the exploitation and oppression of women.

COVID, Lockdowns, and the Surge in Gender-Based Violence (GBV)

The impacts of COVID-19 pandemic are particularly devastating to women because they are more at risk of losing sources of income, less likely to be covered by social protection, and take on a larger share of care work whether in homes or in hospitals. During the lockdown, women’s multiple burdens of care and domestic work intensified; access to food, water, health and other services weakened even further, and exposure to various forms of GBV increased. Across the world, as economic insecurity increased and mobility was curtailed, many women were trapped in abusive households and relationships, deprived of the means to flee from or overcome such situations. Just within a few months of lockdown, the number of reported cases of domestic violence and other forms of GBV rose alarmingly. Consider some examples from Asia:

The data above does not even encompass all forms of GBV and are based only on reported or documented cases. Due to restricted mobility and women’s limited access to communication facilities, and due to the ‘culture of silence’ around the issue in many parts of the region, many incidents remain unreported. By June 2020 it was predicted that 31 million additional cases of GBV are expected to occur globally if the lockdown were to continue for at least 6 months.

GBV: The Silent Pandemic and One of the Deadliest Forms of Violence in Asia

Gender-based violence, the silent pandemic that predated COVID, takes many forms. It includes, among others, domestic violence, violence against women and girls, violence against LGBTI, “electronic violence” or eVAW (violence against women perpetrated using information and communication technology, such as through the internet), rape and other forms of sexual violence, sexual harassment in public spaces and the world of work, structural violence and economic violence that is inflicted as a result of harmful economic policies or practices. GBV violates human rights, deepens inequalities, and takes a heavy social, psychological, and economic toll on individuals, families, communities, and society as a whole.

Women and girls are especially targeted by GBV because they often earn less and are poorer, receive less education and are denied voice and influence in decision-making processes. Among those who are most at risk to increased exposure to GBV are women in unsafe or exploitative working conditions and arrangements, women migrant workers especially care and health workers, women in abusive relationships or households, women who have less access to education, women living with disabilities, women suffering displacement in disaster or conflict-affected communities, and,  in general, women struggling against economic insecurity.

While manifestations and perpetrators may differ across different types of GBV, many forms overlap and are interlinked. Economic insecurity and lack of access to assets and other productive resources are directly linked to vulnerability and exposure to GBV. For example, as shown in research across the world, the lack of land rights, makes women more vulnerable to gender-based violence.

Like other forms of violence, gender-based violence are manifestations of unequal relations of power as well instrumentalities that further perpetuate or reproduce unequal power relations. Where women live or work in insecure and unsafe conditions, placed in subordinated positions or unable to exercise influence, and have less access to or control over economic resources and

decision making, they are exposed to the risk of GBV. In such situations women have been subjected to violence in the hands of employers or co-employees, intimate partners or close relatives, landlords, military or the police, relief workers, agents of government, or even the state itself or other institutions through economic or other policies that cause harm to women or deny women’s access to and control over basic resources. The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment (UN Women) identifies at least four broad types of GBV:

Across Asia, women have reported cases of wife beating and marital rape, acid attacks, bride-burning, dowry death, rape and sexual harassment in streets and mass transportation facilities (cat calls, groping), sexual abuse by foremen and employers in factories, extortion of sexual favors, deprivation of economic entitlements and violation of social and economic rights.

Violence against women has become one of the deadliest forms of violence in Asia, often resulting in more deaths than armed conflict or other forms of violence that have received more attention from policy makers. In some countries, it is the first or second cause of intentional homicide. Between 2011 and 2015, India recorded over 40,000 dowry-related deaths – this is over 10 times more than the combined fatalities of the Kashmir conflict, the Naxalite rebellion, and Northeast India insurgencies during the same period of time, all genders combined.

Ending all forms of gender-based violence is an urgent and critical agenda in women’s fight for survival, justice, and the full realization of their rights. The systemic issues and structural root causes of GBV need to be exposed and addressed. Comprehensive measures for preventing and responding to GBV need to be immediately and vigorously implemented, with women’s inclusion in all stages of designing and implementing such measures, and adequately financed with public resources. We must call governments and inter-governmental institutions to account for the slow progress in ending GBV, in contributing to or creating conditions that allow or tolerate GBV, and in failing to fulfill their human rights obligations and gender equality commitments.

GBV, Women’s Economic Marginalisation, and Macro-Economic Policies

Poverty, economic marginalization and exploitation are gendered phenomena and are linked to the structural root causes of GBV; at the same time they are themselves a form of violence. Wherever and whenever women’s economic insecurity are exacerbated, the vulnerability and exposure to GBV increases. The COVID pandemic further demonstrated the interlinkage of these issues and exposed the grave injustices and violence faced by women and girls. As women are subjected to many forms of violence in the face of multiple crises, we call attention to the policies, structures, and systemic issues that deny women’s rightful access to economic resources, opportunities, and public services that are vital to their survival, safety and security, and to the fulfillment of their full human potential.

As women in Asia continue to face economic marginalization and struggle for economic survival they remain at dire risk of exposure to many forms of gender-based violence. While there has been progress in legislation against violence against women and children (VAWC) across the region, the structural drivers of GBV in the region remain to be addressed. Long-standing cultural norms and practices and neo-liberal macro-economic policies make for a ‘deadly’ combination of factors that have kept women in marginalized or exploited positions.

Access to and control over land and property remains an issue for many women in Asia, rendering them with increased vulnerability to GBV – in Bangladesh, women own 10.10% of land, but the percentage of landowners who are women is 22.61% in 2012, in India rural women own 14% of land in 2011, in Nepal only 9.7% of Nepali women own land solely in 2011, in Pakistan only 2% of all women own land in 2013, in Cambodia, sole ownership is at 15% in 2010, and in Indonesia, 12.% in 2012.

Existing tax and fiscal systems contribute to the prevalence of all forms of GBV and constrain capacities of states to develop, enforce, implement, scale up and expand comprehensive measures for GBV prevention and to resolutely respond to end to this scourge. The channels and mechanisms that facilitate or enable illicit financial flows (IFFs) are also often directly linked to or overlap with those of human trafficking. Decades of loss of public revenues due to unsustainable and illegitimate debt burdens, corporate tax abuses and IFFs have contributed massively to the decline of health and education systems and public services in general. This has provided a questionable excuse for privatization  and, combined with austerity measures imposed by international financial institutions such as the IMF and WB, rendered public services even less accessible and affordable to women and marginalized communities. Import liberalization, unfair trade and investment agreements, and unabated profit driven extraction of natural resources have eroded food sovereignty and hindered peoples’ access to and control over food, land, water, knowledge systems, and other resources.

Meanwhile, under COVID and in a mad “race to the bottom” purportedly to attract more foreign investments, governments in Asia continue to peddle generous tax incentives to multinational corporations while resorting to regressive tax policies like VAT and other consumption taxes to fund public coffers. While corporations can enjoy tax privileges and get away with abusive practice, there is no escape for the ordinary consumer from consumption taxes like Value added tax (VAT) which hit women and the poor especially hardest. All these have exacerbated the social and economic marginalisation of women and increased their vulnerability and exposure to all forms of violence and exploitation. With economic recession just setting in,  the economic hardships of women, and all the attendant risks and insecurities, are far from over.

GBV and the Climate: In A State of Emergency

Women in Asia struggle for survival, safety, security and justice every day, through crisis upon crisis. The onslaught of natural disasters, exacerbated by climate change, presents particular challenges to women. Asia is home to some of the countries that are most threatened by or vulnerable to climate change in the world. Just when the Corona pandemic was building to a peak in April this year, Thailand was beset with droughts and choking fires; and by mid-year Bangladesh was battling against heavy rainfall and floods. These past two months, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia and other countries were battered by typhoons and other natural disasters.

As we all grapple with the climate crisis, women suffer not only the grave impacts of the warming atmosphere, changing weather patterns and extreme weather events, but also the horrors of exploitation and gender-based violence. Because they are deprived of access to and control over basic resources, the food and water scarcity caused by the climate crisis have deepened the oppression and exacerbated the exploitation experienced by women.

In communities enduring prolonged drought, women expected to fetch water struggle not only with the depleting water supply, but also with risks of harassment and sexual assault en route to water facilities. Rural women in India, in addition to having to walk far to collect water of poor quality and irregular availability, often experience sexual harassment and verbal assaults from male bystanders and male facility operators.

Women in other parts of the world share similar stories, validating the analysis that the experiences of women in Asia are not isolated cases but evidence of gendered phenomena and manifestations of systemic issues across the world. Women in Ethiopia have reported cases of women raped while queuing in water stations, while others suffer from physical abuse from their husbands after taking too much time fetching water.

Threats to food security caused by erratic weather patterns also serve as the driver for gender-based violence. “Sex for food” have been widespread in Africa as well as in some parts of Asia, where women, in exchange for food intended to feed their families, are forced to engage in sexual activity. Some families in Bangladesh also resort to marrying off their daughters just to cope with food scarcity and lighten financial needs.

Various forms of GBV also rise whenever disasters strike. From intimate partner violence by male partners who often turn to alcohol to cope, to incidences of assault and rape among climate refugees and evacuees staying in temporary shelters and evacuation centers.

The failure to stem the climate crisis thus adds to the multi-layered context and environment that increase vulnerabilities and exposure to GBV. Harnessing women’s resilience and their valuable role as first-responders in times of disaster have indeed been cited or even valorized in Climate Change adaptation (CCA) plans and disaster risk reduction (DRR) measures. Yet the voices of women, particularly those from communities who are at the frontlines battling climate change’s harshest impacts, voices calling for climate justice, are often rendered invisible or excluded from the highest decision-making corridors on climate policy and finance.

Women’s Fight for Survival, Safety, Security, Justice and System Change

The root causes of GBV are complex; they run deep and are structural and systemic in nature, linked to the inequalities produced and reproduced by capitalism and patriarchy.  Ending all forms of GBV requires political will and resolve, demands systemic change, and entails a transformation in discriminatory norms, values and behavior. But a lot could be achieved immediately just by heeding women’s demands for justice, and by mobilizing adequate public resources to design and implement comprehensive women-led measures for prevention and response. This entails investing in a whole range of essential and badly needed public services– access to health, justice, education, food, water, land and productive resources, among others – and policies, facilities, support systems and public infrastructures to make homes, workplaces and public spaces safer for women and girls.

The struggle to end all forms of gender-based violence and discrimination against women is an integral part of women’s fights for survival, safety, security, justice and system change. The Asian Peoples’ Movement on Debt and Development (APMDD) is committed to advancing and intensifying our campaigns for economic justice, climate justice and energy transformation as part of our contribution to these struggles. We take this opportunity, as part of the “16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence,” to advance the following calls and demands:

  1. End all forms of Gender-based Violence! Ensure public funding for women-led comprehensive measures for prevention and response! Ensure adequate and sustained support for GBV victim-survivors and their families!
  2. Make quality gender-responsive public services and publicly-funded infrastructures available and accessible to women!
  3. Unconditional debt cancellation now! Cancel all illegitimate debts! Free up debt service payments to realize women’s human rights and gender justice.
  4. End unjust tax burdens on women! Make taxes work for women! Increase allocation of tax revenues for gender-responsive services!
  5. Stop illicit financial flows! Stop tax abuses of corporations and elites!
  6. Climate justice now! Make climate policies and financing projects, disaster risk reduction measures, and humanitarian actions responsive to the needs and justice demands of women and girls! Respect and uphold women’s human rights at all times and all places!
  7. Women, fight for system change!

Fight for Women’s Survival, Safety, and Security in the Face of Multiple Crises!
Fight for Economic and Gender Justice!
Fight for System Change!