Exploring ASEAN’s Commitment for Women: Fifty Years of Evolution

ASEAN has been around for half a century, and yet half of its population are still discriminated, and often victimised, due to their gender. Women in ASEAN still have a long way to break the glass ceiling in the economic sector. Their participation in the economic sector is persistently lower across all ASEAN countries, and their employment is concentrated in the low-skilled and informal sectors (i.e. agriculture, garment, tourism, and care services), with almost complete absence of access to benefits and social protection.1 It is also reported that various forms of violence against women (VAW) remains widespread and occurs at all levels – in the family, community, society, cross-regionally and transnationally. Domestic violence, sexual assaults, forced marriages, and trafficking in persons for the purposes of exploitation and forced labour are some of the most prevalent cases of VAW in the region.2 Have these problem been addressed by ASEAN? Are they even part of the ASEAN’s project?
In its fifty years of existence, ASEAN has developed a commitment to various agendas related to women and gender equality concerns. Broadly speaking, ASEAN’s commitment, at least on paper, to women and gender equality agenda has developed from simply a concern to include issues related women to a more complex acknowledgment of women’s agency, especially related to agency in development. This article explores the evolution of ASEAN’s commitment towards women and gender equality concerns. It examines the pattern of issue framing that has shaped ASEAN’s main focus on women and gender equality concerns.
Whither women?
Gender equality, specifically women’s empowerment, was not a key concern of ASEAN during its initiation. The founding fathers of ASEAN, not coincidentally all  are male, did not include a specific agenda for women and adopted gender-blind language for the Association’s early declaration and treaty, such as the ASEAN Declaration adopted in 1967 and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) adopted in 1976.3 In the ASEAN Declaration, for example, it was stated that some of the goals of the Association was to accelerate economic growth, social progress, as well as to promote peace and stability,4 without necessarily acknowledging the unequal power relations that blocked women’s capacity to participate and benefit from the process of the goals’ attainment.
The development of women’s agenda in ASEAN happened gradually. In the beginning, it focused on the terms on how to best involve women in achieving ASEAN’s goals and how to include women’s related issues within the ASEAN framework. It was the establishment of the ASEAN Women Leaders’ Conference in 1975 that marked the first impetus to involve women in the process of ASEAN integration, and to include issues related to women as part of ASEAN’s agenda.5 The next year, as the ASEAN Committee on Socio-Cultural Activities formally established the ASEAN Sub-Committee on Women (ASW), ASEAN moved to promote and support “women’s activities,” especially in the fields related to health, nutrition, education, and employment in industrial as well as agricultural sectors.6 Implicitly, during its inception, ASEAN had framed its commitment to women’s concerns within the boundaries of the traditional gendered conception of what constitutes to be feminine roles in the field of family health and welfare, as well as in some specific sectors of industry. Other than that, by establishing the ASW under the ASEAN Committee on Socio-Cultural Activities, it also seems like ASEAN had structured women’s agenda within the socio-cultural framework.
In the next phase, ASEAN included women and development approach in its commitment for women and gender concerns. In 1981, the ASW was renamed as ASEAN’s Women’s Programme (AWP), and was given an official mandate as a forum to enhance the role of women in development under the ASEAN Committee on Social Development (COSD).7 AWP created the Clearinghouse on Women in Development, which published the Thesaurus on Women in Development in 1996 as a reference to explain the connection between gender and development.8 The momentum continued to build-on with the adoption of the Declaration on the Advancement on Women, which was signed by ASEAN Foreign Ministers in July 1988. This marked the first significant milestone for women’s empowerment agenda in the region. The Declaration recognised the political dimension of women’s position as important agents and beneficiaries of development, and it also suggested the integration and harmonisation of women’s perspective and agenda in national and regional plans.9 The Declaration, however, did not specify the definition of development, gender mainstreaming, as well as what kind of agency and benefits women could expect from ASEAN. The document only mentioned briefly that women’s role would be considered within their capacity as “productive force to attain the full development of the human personality.”10
The subsequent AWP’s annual meetings were generally focused on the suggestion to implement and operationalise the Declaration. In 1997, the AWP was renamed into ASEAN Sub-Committee on Women (ASW), and the first regional report on the Advancement of Women in ASEAN was published and distributed. Since then, ASEAN has published three regional reports on the Advancement of Women. The latest report was published in 2007. It was aimed mainly to enhance the understanding of the implications of globalisation and regional integration on women’s advancement and gender equality in ASEAN countries, and to identify policy options for ASEAN’s consideration.11
It is also interesting to note that after the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997-1998, ASEAN pursued a regional reform to build “caring societies,” by shifting the focus of women’s advancement in development to the issue of violence against women as an impediment to the achievement of equality and development, and the enhancement of women’s protection and employability in the context of globalisation.12 Amongst all these, violence against women has been one of the priorities of ASEAN’s engagement with women’s issues. The Hanoi Plan of Action in 1998 framed three priority concerns specific to women, which were (1) trafficking in, and crimes of violence against women and children, (2) the full implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, as well as other international instruments concerning women and children, and (3) the efforts to enhance the capacity of disadvantaged women to enter the work force.13
In regards to this, there were two notable developments. The first was that the institutionalisation of women’s concerns in ASEAN continued to prioritise the protection of women against violence and crimes, especially human trafficking, and violence. Whilst it is true that specific attention must be given for women and girls who are more vulnerable to discrimination, violence and crime, the language of protection and the framing of women and girls as victims actually limit their sense of agency into an inherent vulnerable victims of violence who are in need of masculine protectors, such as the state. Secondly, whilst in 1992 the Eleventh Meeting of AWP expressed a concern, and even declined, the arrangements to include children’s issues under its mandate because it would potentially reinforce the idea that children are the sole responsibility of women,14 the Eighteenth Meeting of ASW in 1999 accepted the Hanoi Declaration and Plan of Action, which basically framed the issue of children as an inseparable part of women’s agenda.  This seems to be the foundation of the integration of women and children’s agenda within ASEAN, and a pragmatic adjustment to allow for deeper institutionalisation of women’s agenda as it promoted the widely accepted traditional conception of women’s roles and responsibilities as caregivers.
In recent years, ASEAN’s commitment to women and gender concerns is translated into a complex institutional structure. In 2001, ASW was restructured into ASEAN Committee on Women (ACW), which not only oversaw the creation of the ASEAN Committee on the Rights of Women and Children, but also drafted the ASEAN Declaration on the Elimination of  Violence Against Women, adopted in 2004.15 The Declaration reaffirms the region’s framing of violence against women as an obstacle to achieve peace, development, and equality in ASEAN, as well as sets the issue of gender rights and their violations in the concentric circles of individual, familial, communal, and social contexts.16
Moving on, the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) was inaugurated in 2010 as the new main body to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of women and children in ASEAN that reports to the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Social Welfare and Development (AMMSWD). It seeks to ensure complementarity with the Convention on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which all ASEAN countries have signed and ratified.17 In the following year, the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Women (AMMW) was established as part of the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community pillar, further reinstituting the agenda related to women within socio-cultural pillar.18
In this latest development, ASEAN has included a specific conception of women’s rights, as well as children’s rights. The ACWC Work Plan 2012-2016 has incorporated women’s access to education, political participation, and economic empowerment as women’s rights. Children’s rights are described to be heavily related with issues related to women, such as child rearing and child-caring in the family, and within the framework of protection against human trafficking.19 Other than that, notable development of women’s empowerment agenda in ASEAN can be seen in the terms of human trafficking prevention and solution.  In 2015, the ASEAN Convention against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children was signed by the Heads of States at the 27th ASEAN Summit in November, which was then followed by the launching of the Regional Review on Laws, Policies, and Practices within ASEAN related to the Identification, Management, and Treatment of Victims of Trafficking, Especially Women and Children in 2016.
Three observations can be made from ASEAN’s recent progress in women and gender equality concerns. The first is that ASEAN seems to have pushed women’s empowerment agenda forward by framing women’s protection and participation as part of their human rights. Secondly, ASEAN has also further reaffirmed the link between children and women, which endorses the idea that children are the main responsibility of women. Thirdly, it seems that in ASEAN, framing women in terms of their instrumental value to the development agenda and their vulnerable position as victims has made it possible for deeper institutionalisation of women and gender equality concerns. Whilst this is a promising improvement, it also indicates that ASEAN still sees gender equality agenda mostly in term of women’s protection and participation  by looking at women as a homogenous group with special needs that are not necessarily political.20 Furthermore, ASEAN also still looks at women within its traditional feminine notion, with specific characteristics and roles that constrain their full potential agency.
The Way Forward
Moving ahead, ASEAN needs to pay more attention to the danger of instrumentalisation, especially in promoting women and development agenda, because the inclusion of gender in programmes or strategies does not necessarily guarantee to serve the goals of gender equality and women’s well being, and might even hinder them.21 This is especially relevant for ASEAN because, as recent research suggests, there is an asymmetrical correlation between gender equality and economic growth.  Whilst the promotion of gender equality has shown to consistently result in better growth, economic growth in itself does not guarantee to deliver better gender equality on all fronts.22 Despite the impressive growth record, ASEAN women still lagged behind in terms of employment participation, both in numbers and in quality. The problem of the gender wage gap also persists, in which women in Southeast Asia are projected to continue to earn 20 percent less than men in 2025.23 Furthermore, women’s substantial contribution in the family through fulfilling household task and child rearing is still largely invisible and not valued in the calculation of economic development. There seems to be a gap between women’s significant contribution to the development and the achievement of gender equality. ASEAN should transform this by further promoting the fulfilment of women’s rights as part of human rights, not just supporting the use of women as an additional labour force to make growth statistics looks better.
In promoting women’s rights and gender equality, ASEAN must not ignore the intersection of other social identities that often serve as the basis of inequality, such as class, race, and ethnicity. ASEAN seems to have the tendency to frame women and men, not to mention children, as a homogenous group with little regard to the other social identities. This can result in inequality because whilst positive transformations have taken place for women who could benefit from new opportunities created by the economic and political dynamics, other women who have been excluded and marginalised due to their social identities have not gained the same advantages.24 Indeed, the progress of gender equality agenda in ASEAN is moving slowly and has not yet reached the point where ASEAN is allowed to frame gender equality outside the traditional binary construction of femininity and masculinity. This should not be the case because the overarching goal should be social equality, in which every person will have the freedom to actualise themselves despite the differences in gender identity, ethnicity, class, or race.
Additionally, ASEAN’s aim to mainstream gender across all pillars and activities, must be treated cautiously. The integration of gender issues into all programmes often resulted in simplification of gender equality and women’s empowerment goals, and what should be a process of social transformation then turned into a technical process and became depoliticised. This means that the implementation of gender mainstreaming should not reduce a range of gender problems by naively seeking to empower women by simply giving out what is thought to be the missing elements (i.e. credit or certain skills).25 The unequal power relations within the structure of the society that blocked women’s capacity to influence and participate in development processes must be taken into account and gradually changed through campaign and education alongside the existing practical mechanism. All stakeholders – the government, private companies, NGOs or CSOs, and the wider public – must be involved to ensure the sustainability and transparency of gender mainstreaming programmes. It might take another fifty years for ASEAN to achieve this, but the region has the basic structure and on-paper commitment to realise this, if done properly.



1              ASEAN Secretariat (2016), Projected Gender Impact of the ASEAN Economic Community. Jakarta: ASEAN Secretariat.
2              UN Women (n.d.), “Violence Against Women,” UN Women Issue Briefs on Women’s Human Rights in the ASEAN Region, retrieved from: <http://unwomen-asiapacific.org/docs/cedaw/archive/issue_brief/Issue_Brief_Violence%20Against%20Women.pdf>.
3              Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (2013), An ASEAN Handbook for Women’s Rights Activists, Chiang Mai: Southeast Asia Women’s Caucus on ASEAN Secretariat, pp. 13.
4              ASEAN Secretariat (1967), “The ASEAN Declaration (Bangkok Declaration)”, retrieved from: <http://asean.org/the-asean-declaration-bangkok-declaration-bangkok-8-august-1967/>.
5              The National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women (2005), ASEAN Committee on Women 30 Years After, Manila: the National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women, pp. 5.
6              Ibid., pp. 8-9.
7              Ibid., pp. 11.
8              Davies, Matthew (2016), “Women and Development, Not Gender and Politics: Explaining ASEAN’s Failure to Engage with the Women, Peace and Security Agenda,” Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs, Vol. 38, No. 1, pp. 109.
9              ASEAN Secretariat (1967), Op. cit.
10           Ibid.
11           ASEAN Secretariat (2007), Third Report on the Advancement of Women in ASEAN, Jakarta: ASEAN Secretariat, pp. 2.
12           Davies (2016),Op. cit., pp. 109-110.
13           ASEAN Secretariat (1998), “Hanoi Plan of Action,” retrieved from: <http://asean.org/?static_post=hanoi-plan-of-action>.
14           The National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women (2005), Op. cit. pp. 30.
15           LSE Centre for Women, Peace and Security (2016), “ASEAN Committee on Women,” retrieved from: <http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/vaw/regional/southeast-asia/asean-committee-on-women/>.
16           Davies (2016), Op. cit., pp. 110.
17           ACWC (n.d.), “About ACWC,” retrieved from: <https://acwc.asean.org/about/>.
18           Davies (2016), Op. cit., pp. 110.
19           ACWC (2012), ACWC Work Plan 2012-2016 and Rules of Procedures (ROP), Jakarta: ASEAN Secretariat, retrieved from: <https://acwc.asean.org/about/the-acwc-work-plan-2012-2016/>.
20           See also Davies (2016), Op. cit.
21           L. Beneria, G. Berik and M. S. Floro (2016), Gender, Development, and Globalization – Economics as if All People Mattered, New York: Routledge , pp. 3.
22           The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank (2011) World Development Report 2012 – Gender Equality and Development, Washington DC: The World Bank.
23           International Labor Organization (ILO) and Asian Development Bank (ADC) (2014), ASEAN Community 2015: Managing Integration for Better Jobs and Shared Prosperity, Bangkok, Thailand: ILO and ADB, retrieved from: <http://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/publication/42818/asean-community-2015-managing-integration.pdf>.
24           L. Beneria, G. Berik and M. S. Floro (2016), Op. cit., pp. 4.
25           See for example Rai, Shirin (2002), Gender and Political Economy of Development: From Nationalism to Globalisation, Cambridge: Polity Press; Mukhopadhyay, Maitrayee (2004), “Mainstreaming Gender or ‘Streaming’ Gender Away: Feminists Marooned in the Development Business,” IDS Bulletin 35 (4): 95-103.
27 August 2017

Exploring ASEAN’s Commitment for Women: Fifty Years of Evolution

Hana Hanifah is a researcher at The Habibie Center’s ASEAN Studies Program

26 August 2017

Re-balancing ASEAN Integration: Medical Tourism vs Migrants’ Health?

CHAN Chee Khoon is Visiting Scholar Centre for Research in International & Comparative Education (CRICE)

19 June 2017

Feminising the Economy: Women’s Empowerment and Economic Development in the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC)

Hana Hanifah Bastaman is a researcher at The Habibie Center’s ASEAN Studies Program

18 June 2017

Narrowing the Development Gaps in ASEAN

Vannarith Chheang is Visiting Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute

12 May 2017

Taking Stock of 10 Years of ASEAN Charter: Human Rights Perspective

Yuyun Wahyuningrum is PhD Researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of the Erasmus University Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

11 May 2017

Stuck In the Future: Stock Taking ASEAN Charter Development and Implementation

Wirya Adiwena is the Head of International Relations and a Researcher at the Habibie Center

10 May 2017

The ASEAN Charter from the Law of Treaties’ Perspective

Vierna Tasya Wensatama is a researcher at The Habibie Center’s ASEAN Studies Program.

20 April 2017

ASEAN – South Korea Economic Relations: The Way Forward

Fina Astriana is a researcher at The Habibie Center’s ASEAN Studies Program

19 April 2017

Enhancing Trust-Building In Asean-Korea Relations

Dira Fabrian is a graduate of the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, class of 2016, and a diplomat with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia

18 April 2017

ASEAN Plus Three at Twenty: Perspective from Japan

Haruko Satoh, is Associate Professor at the Osaka School of International Public Policy (OSIPP), Osaka University where she is currently working on an international research project on rethinking international politics in East Asia.

27 February 2017

Duterte and His Quixotic War on Drugs

Lowell Bautista is Senior Lecturer at the School of Law, University of Wollongong

26 February 2017

Monopsony in the Labor Market – A Primer

Agustha LumbanTobing is a researcher at The Habibie Center’s ASEAN Studies Program