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Asia Pacific Feminists Gather to Share, Strategize, Learn and Mobilize

From 12-14 December 2011 in Chiang Mai, Thailand, the first ever Asia Pacific Feminist Forum was held. Bringing together around 120 activists from the region, the Forum was organized by the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD)[1]. AWID spoke with APWLD’s Kate Lappin both before and after this historic event.

By Rochelle Jones

The Asia-Pacific region is characterized as much by its diverse people as it is by its diverse challenges. For example, the 2010 Asia Pacific Human Development Report[2] states that “While overall indicators for economic prosperity, educational attainments and access to healthcare have improved for the region’s population over the recent decades, gender gaps have not closed.” The same report, however, suggests that the “Asia-Pacific is now better positioned than ever to make rapid progress towards gender equality.”

Enter the Asia Pacific Feminist Forum (APFF). The inaugural APFF was organized by the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD) and brought together women lawyers, academics, advocates and youth leaders from the region. APWLD, which is also celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2011, projected it would be “an occasion to celebrate our collective achievements, reflect on our challenges and political climates, deepen feminist knowledge and analysis, strengthen our sisterhood, solidarity and collaboration, and reaffirm our resolve to advance women’s rights.”[3]

Talking about some of the main challenges facing Asia-Pacific feminism/s, APWLD’s Regional Coordinator, Kate Lappin explained: “There are shared challenges as well as significant differences. Neo-liberal globalization and the global financial crisis place enormous burdens on poor women from the region. Asia is regarded as the vehicle to global economic growth - to drag the world out of its Wall Street-led financial crisis. Somehow the burden to produce more global wealth has fallen on the poor women of Asia who work in economic processing zones void of labour protection, healthy environments and who have been separated from their families and communities.

The region is also suffering from climate related disasters with more deaths, displacements and ill health from climate disasters than any other region. Women of course bear the brunt of those disasters, but despite this they have the least voice in policy debates around climate justice.

The use of cultural and religious fundamentalisms to control women also persists as a major impediment to women’s rights in the region. From the highlands of Papua New Guinea - where women continue to be tortured, killed and accused of witchcraft during land disputes - to Pakistan or parts of Indonesia, where women are charged with indecency and targeted by religious police. Fundamentalist practices are fusing with patriarchy to control women in the region. And conflict and militarization continue to take their greatest toll on women. Women human rights defenders (WHRDs) lead movements for democracy in Fiji as well as in Burma.”

Lappin then described why the APFF is so important, both as a pathway to discuss and address some of these challenges, as well as being a space for women to simply reenergize and have some fun: “A gathering of feminists from Asia Pacific has been talked about for some time. Other continents have created a space for feminists to come together and share, strategize, learn, mobilize and enjoy each other’s solidarity. In 2009, a number of APWLD members decided that it was time for Asia Pacific to do the same, and so the concept for the APFF was born. This space is important as we look at global political and social movements and their implications for women across the world. It’s important as a space to collectively identify the challenges to our movement and strategize to address them. It’s important as a space to nurture young feminists and the women’s movement struggling in countries where repression of WHRDs is common.”

In terms of what they hoped to achieve at the APFF, Lappin said: “we hope to invigorate the women’s movement, strengthen our activism, provide a space for learning and reflection and nurture the next generation of feminists. We hope to extend women’s networks, particularly fostering relationships with experienced activists where the women’s movement is strong with countries that have a nascent movement who need regional solidarity to thrive. We want participants to take away new ideas, approaches, techniques and a renewed sense of purpose and commitment. We also hope to give feminists a space to enjoy their sisterhood, relax, reflect and have fun!”

Participants at the APFF represented a broad spectrum of women’s rights and gender equality advocates in the region. For example, women came from such countries as the Solomon Islands, South Korea, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, India, West Papua, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Fiji, Malaysia, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Nepal, China, Indonesia, Pakistan, Myanmar, Australia, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and of course, Thailand. There were representatives from the funding community and UN Women, as well as local and international NGOs and activists. In particular, Lappin mentioned that “the presence of many young women, for example, a group of young Cambodian women activists who were not sure what feminism was and had not attended international events before, brought new insights, tactics and energy. In addition, there was a delegation of women with disabilities who were able to meet for this first time to discuss a feminist perspective on disability advocacy.”

The three-day event included workshops on migrant domestic worker rights; using technology for women’s rights; sexual and reproductive health rights; women holding states accountable; building a feminist sustainable development framework; and CEDAW and Muslim Family Laws, among others. There was also time for some creative fun with morning yoga, the Feminist Film Festival and Feminist Fashion Show, conveying the messages of struggles and resistance of women against fundamentalisms, militarization and globalization. In Lappin’s words “It (the APFF) also allowed us to test new, participatory approaches to this kind of convening. There were no speeches or formal presentations in plenary. Instead we used interviews, experiential workshops, story-telling and skills sharing.”

There were a number of important outcomes from the APFF, some of which are still being considered, according to APWLD. The major outcomes include:

  • Forming an Asia Pacific Network for Women with Disabilities;

  • Developing a process to collectively address the reduction in funding for women’s rights work in the region and campaign for sustainable support; and

  • Establishing the APFF as a bi or tri-annual event in the region.

In general, Kate held that the APFF was “enormous fun, stimulating and allowed many of us to connect with emerging activists as well as old friends.”

[1] APWLD is a regional women’s human rights network of 180 members in 25 countries of the Asia Pacific region committed to enabling women to use law as an instrument of social change, equality and development.