The Southeast Asia Women’s Caucus on the ASEAN (Women’s Caucus) is alarmed by moves to put “public morality” in the draft of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD). We believe that this will further endanger the lives of women in Southeast Asia with the “morality” standards already being exercised by the dominant patriarchal and traditional beliefs in each ASEAN member state.
“Public morality” has been used as a ground in limiting human rights, discriminating against women and girls and other minorities such as lesbian, gays, bisexuals and transgenders. Worse, when used in concepts of chastity, virginity, the crimes against persons such as rape and other sexual abuses have become crimes against honor even in conflict and post-conflict situations.
The Syariah Law governing Muslims in Indonesia, Malaysia and other parts of the region has restricted the freedom of expression and control of women over their bodies, and has led to criminalization of women.
In Indonesia, 207 policies at the national and regional level with moral and religious nuances that deprived the rights to protection and legal certainty of women, restricted women’s rights to freedom of religion for the Ahmadiyya community, and curtailed women’s enjoyment of their fundamental rights to public services.
As Aceh adopted a local regulation based on Syariah Law (callled “Qanun”), Muslim women are obliged to use veil and long dress, otherwise they risk being arrested by the Shariah police. Another Aceh regulation is khalwat where an unmarried woman and a man, who are found in secluded places are arrested and caned in public. They are punished by being forced to walk nude around a village, doused in sewage, or being forced to get married.
The Law No. 44, year 2008 on pornography even became a setback for the enforcement of women’s rights in Indonesia. The law aimed to protect women and children from pornography, but this law was actually used to control women’s body and sexuality with the threat of being charged with criminal violation if perceived to be doing pornographic acts.
“Public morality” under Syariah laws in Malaysia was used by the state in policing Muslims, citing indecency, liwat (sodomy), musahaqah (lesbianism), drinking alcohol, khalwat (intimate acts of unmarried couples), zina (sex out of wedlock), and not observing fasting during the fasting month as acts violating these laws.
Discriminating on the basis of gender identity, the Syariah Criminal offences include any male person who wears a woman’s attire and poses as a woman for immoral purposes in public places. When convicted, the offender will be liable to a fine not exceeding one thousand ringgit or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year or both.
Malaysia’s civil laws are also used to police non-Muslims. In March 2012, three women were charged for indecent behaviour for doing pole dancing in a nightclub in Seremban. The women were fined RM25 each and charged for allegedly being “dressed scantily”.
In reality, “public morality” failed to protect women in prostitution in Thailand, precisely because this contradicted Thai’s moral code. Although some aspects of prostitution have been decriminalized, women engaged in this practice, particiarly women migrants from other parts of Mekong, remain vulnerable when dealing with the police. The police arbitrarily exercise their own sense of morality and this leads to human rights violation when used as a standard for public law enforcement. In fact, one case involves a police who arrested a woman for solicitation but this was because the woman was wearing short dress and high heels.
Thailand has a draft gender equality law that said to provide equal protection from discrimination and access to resources. However, the bill exempts protection on certain grounds such as religion. Again, the AHRD must set the standard, ensuring non-discrimination on all grounds, including standards of morality of dominant groups and belief systems.
Right here in the Philippines, our fellow feminists are worried that this move to put “public morality” in the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration will justify the interference of the Catholic Church in the deliberation of the Reproductive Health bill in Philippine Congress.
The church will waste no time in raising morality issue as a weapon in every possible measure as they are doing now to block this bill that aims to protect the reproductive health rights of Filipino women.
Another classic case of public morality standing in the way of women’s gender rights is the rape case of Karen Vertido. A mother of two children, Karen did not fit the usual profile of a rape-victim survivor, who is expected to be young and innocent. The rape case was dismissed by the local court because of the Judge’s opinion that the victim did not escape when she appeared to have had so many opportunities to do so.
The acquittal of Custodio came from clear gender biases and gender-based ‘morality’, myths and misconceptions as espoused by the Judge of the local court and this clearly violated Vertido’s rights. The decision of the local court was criticized and overturned by the United Nations through the Optional Protocol of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
The CEDAW Committee ruled that the Philippine government also violated a legal obligation to respect, protect, promote and fulfill Vertido’s right and the right of all Filipino women to non-discrimination, including the judiciary and other state agencies.
The inclusion of “public morality” in the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration poses great challenge to CEDAW, of which all the ASEAN member-states are party to. It poses great challenge to CEDAW’s efforts towards the transformation of cultural tradition and practices that have been oppressive to women and girls.
We have been engaging with the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), the body that has been tasked to draft the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD). We sent to AICHR our first submission on October 21, 2011, and the addendum that focuses on the draft AHRD as of June 2012.
In the second addendum that we intend to send in line with the 9th meeting of the AICHR in Manila on September 13-14, we reiterate our call to omit “public morality” in the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration.
10 September 2012
Nina Somera +668 1162 1073
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