by Mikas Matsuzawa
Recently, I attended the Beijing+15 Asia Pacific NGO Forum held at the Miriam College here in the Philippines. It was my first time to participate in such an event, and my first time to meet women from different parts of the globe all united for the goal of achieving gender equality as enshrined in the Beijing protocol.
I participated as part of JASS SEA or Just Associates Southeast Asia, a cross-regional organization of feminists and human rights workers from different fields. Currently, it works in the Mesoamerica, Southern Africa and Southeast Asia regions.
Culture of oppression
The Beijing+15 forum was held October 22 to 24. When I arrived on the first day, Indian feminist Kamla was speaking on a video recording during a plenary entitled “Feminisms through Generations.”
“Patriarchy and capitalism is a dangerous combination,” said Kamla, who for a long time has been working on the concerns of women in India. She explained that patriarchy, along with the class structure and the existing caste system, bring about the marginalized state of women in India. Summarizing the situation in her country, she identified the two root causes of oppression – culture and religion.
A similar story is shared by sisters from the Pacific region. The panelist from Fiji, Claire Slatter, also identified culture as one of the biggest barriers to women in her country. She stated that Fiji women are subjected to oppressive systems that are reinforced by the law itself.
Tongan women shared the same concerns, as Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki described how women’s rights activists are accused of breaking up families just because they are pushing for the ratification of CEDAW (the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women). According to their government, CEDAW cut across the “Tongan” way of life. Ofa cited six homicide cases recorded in their country (population 100,000), with four of the six being domestic violence cases where the husbands killed their wives. Fifteen years after the Beijing protocol and more than a hundred years after the historic March 8 protest, Tongan women can only lease and not own land. Widows are expected by the society to remain loyal to their dead husbands. Failure to do so can enable the court to order the widow off her land.
CEDAW, as Ofa explained, is viewed as evil and against Christianity. Despite all the persecution faced by women rights activists in her country she said bravely, “I don’t feel comfortable, but I know I’m doing the right thing… [Women] have every right to stand up and speak out.”
Drawing from history, Kamla explained how in the 1970s they were seeking words and means to express how the family is the location of the worst form of patriarchy, discrimination and violence. She said, “Subjugation comes from the most intimate relationships.”
In communication theories, feminists have identified how the language is gendered. Feminist theory, as stated in the book Theories of Human Communication, “begins with the assumption that gender is a pervasive category of experience” (Littlejohn & Foss, p. 222). As a social construction, gender has been male dominated and oppressive to women. And so:
[feminist] theory aims to challenge the prevailing gender assumptions of society and to achieve more liberating ways for women and men to exist in the world (ibid., p. 222). As the experiences of feminists have shown, the current system doesn’t have words to challenge patriarchy. Even the word “husband,’ as sampled during the forum, means “to domesticate.” Facing this situation, women advocates have come up with creative ways to propagate their cause. As they found out, music and songs are particularly effective forms of teaching.
Fifteen years after
Reflecting on all the experiences shared by different women during the forum, I compare their concerns and experiences with those of women in the Philippines. Seeing the parallels, I can’t help but agree with Kamla Bhasin’s analysis: “Unless we fight neoliberal policies, I don’t see a future for gender equality.”
Recent statistics show that women compose 49% of the country’s population. Despite all claims that the gender gap in the country is lessening, the realities experienced by grassroots women tell otherwise. We see this in our work, those of us involved in organizations of women from the urban poor, youth and students: how women farmers are not considered as farmers but housewives still. How urban poor women have to work in contractual jobs with meager pay and are still expected to tend to housework. How neoliberal policies in education have increased the number of out-of-school young women. Yes, in this modern age, the notion that a woman’s place is in the kitchen and the bedroom still lingers.
I have learned to recognize that there is indeed double oppression of women not only due to gender but also class.
Women must realize that they need to stand up and struggle for their own liberation. I have learned that the road to women’s emancipation is rough but through collective struggle along with the other sectors of society it can be achieved.
I am a young advocate for women’s rights. Yes, I may be a novice to some, though I know in my self that I am no less capable in fighting for gender equality.
I know that I am not alone, that there are others like me, young women, who replenish and continue this struggle. I remember how one speaker from Fiji said, as a challenge, that young women should not take their rights for granted and that they should be vigilant.
Another speaker said, if one of us is not free, none of us is free. I agree. “There has never been nor will there ever be real freedom as long as there is no freedom for women.”
Mikas Matsuzawa is a journalism student, activist and blogger. You can read more of her thoughts here.