Novia Widyasari, a young woman who committed suicide just last week due to sexual violence sparked outrage from women’s rights activists in Indonesia. Her death has further amplified the frail and flimsy legal system that is so apparent in the Southeast Asian region. Violence against women has been an ongoing issue, given Asia’s past cultural values of male dominance. The most prevalent channel of violence spurs from domestic violence, where data from the WHO estimates that at least 28% of Southeast Asian women have experienced intimate partner violence in their lifetime.
Covid-19: For Better or for Worse?
People being confined to their homes and employers letting their workers go is the principal cause of the rise in violence against women and girls. Increases in stress from financial issues engendered greater alcohol consumption, and men began taking out their frustration on their partners. The strict lockdown measures across the region also exacerbate the issue, where victims are trapped under the same roof as their abuser. By using google searches such as “how to cover bruises on face” and “signs of an abusive relationship” as a proxy for domestic abuse, violence against women rose 47% and 63% in Malaysia and the Philippines respectively between October 2019 and September 2020. To make things worse, healthcare services have dwindled for violence victims, as hospitals now prioritise handling and getting the flood of Covid patients under control.
There are sadly more causes of domestic violence other than financial stress during the Covid era. While some of us complain about online learning, the closure of schools has been forcing young girls into early marriage. It is estimated that 4.5 million girls are likely to never return to schools, lowering their access to future employment and information services. Girls married at the vulnerable age of below 18 are much more likely to experience abuse, and with the rise of child marriages during the pandemic years, more young women in Southeast Asia are being forced to brave the violence inflicted upon them by their partners.
Other than facing violence, women have also been discriminated against and oppressed. In the midst of a pandemic, an era where online platforms become the main means of communication, people take to Twitter to express their inner thoughts. In Thailand, many tweets have involved victim-blaming in sexual violence cases. Data on the percentage change in the number of tweets containing misogynistic language between October 2019 and 2020 reveals that Thailand came out on top of the pack, with a tremendous 22,384% increase, followed by the Philippines, with a 953% increase. On the more hopeful side, the number of misogynistic tweets in Malaysia fell by 19%.
Although the pandemic has scorched a trail of damage in its wake, people also took advantage of the convenient digital world to express their views in support of victims. Thailand had the largest percentage increase in misogynistic tweets, but it also won in terms of tweets defending violent victims, with a 112% surge. Of these, 20% of posts also expressed frustrations on the lack of government action.
A Broken Justice System
The lack of faith in the police and institutions in Southeast Asia is a prevalent pattern across the nation countries. In Vietnam, around 58% of ever-married women faced some form of domestic violence, but only a mere 13% sought help from the justice system. This is linked to Asia’s deep-rooted mentality on gender roles which somehow justifies the oppression of women. In Myanmar, domestic abuse is almost always regarded as a family matter, with the police being reluctant to meddle with the situation.
But is there a silver lining through all of this? In Bangkok, on 2 December 2021, the ten member states of ASEAN agreed to impose stronger measures to implement the Regional Plan of Action on the Elimination of Violence against Women, 2016-2025. Through this, countries should improve on their data collection on violence, and allocate more funds towards campaigns to raise awareness about violence against women and to increase training on the administration of justice.
However, would this be enough to reverse the centuries of cultural views that disadvantage women and girls? Through ASEAN’s Action Plan, by measures such as aiding victims in terms of seeking higher education and job training, persecuting and rehabilitating abusers, and performing research on various policies to implement, violence against women is expected to decline. In a few years’ time, hopefully, this issue would no longer prevail. But right now, in the ongoing pandemic, there is a woman who is being abused by her husband, and she is trapped in her own home with no help from the fragile justice system.