Life can be heartbreakingly hard for young girls growing up in Asia. In a rural Indonesian city, Sari* a 15-year-old girl died last week after being brutally battered by her 16-year-old husband. They had been married for two years, and she had been subject to his savage abuse for the last year ever since the death of their prematurely born child.
It's not difficult to see how Sari's fate was, in no small part, guided by a series of tragic circumstances. Across Asia, child marriage, teen pregnancy, and domestic violence are all crucial reminders that one of the greatest obstructions to gender equality worldwide, but especially in Asia, is a lack of universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).
I attended a recent meeting of leading SRHR activists and practitioners from the Asia-Pacific region who gathered the Asia Regional Dialogue organized by ARROW, a non-profit women’s organization based in Malaysia, to review the state of gender equality in the region. The idea behind the meeting was to formalize a list of recommendations that they can use to hold regional governments accountable in their commitment to sustainable development ahead of the mid-term review of the 6th United Nations Asia Pacific Population Conference (APPC).
It's a complex problem with no easy solutions. Across the Asia-Pacific region, the interplay of cultural and religious norms with socio-geographic factors has created an environment where some of the same stuff that stands in the way of gender equality also has deep roots in the cultures and histories of a place.
Take Bangladesh, where inter-religious couples and their families are routinely persecuted for finding love outside the confines of their faith. Or in Indonesia' Aceh province, where gay men were publicly caned and shamed for violating Sharia law. It's not easy to convince someone to change their mind about something that's been baked so deeply into their culture.
These cultural perceptions can seem innocuous enough when taken from a relativistic view, but they can have very real and damaging consequences as well. For instance, gender imbalances as a result of preference for male offspring in China have fueled market demand for kidnapped brides. Young girls should not be robbed of their autonomy and prospects because society regards them as property. This issue is especially pertinent in South Asia, which is home to 42% of all child brides worldwide.
Stigmas against premarital sex in Indonesia have resulted in large information gaps around sexual health and education, which makes some women in need of contraceptives resort to purchasing them through unsafely and illegal means. Even in countries with comparatively more progressive governments, there may be problems in the quality and standards of healthcare that need to be addressed—consider for example, that 40% of maternal deaths amongst Cambodian sex workers are caused by abortions.
The threats to women’s welfare abound on cultural and societal levels, but they also permeate the home. Domestic abuse is shockingly high, with 37.7% of Southeast Asian women having experienced physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner, and tragic tales of femicide haunting us even in more developed countries such as Australia.
Universal access to SRHR implies a rights-based approach fine-tuned to accommodate and protect the needs of all—regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, income status, and citizenship. A key tenet of this is to ensure that marginalized communities, especially those faced with multiple levels of discrimination, are provided access to services and information that enable them to safeguard their right to health, and life.
I can't help but feel that Sari would have been much better off had she been protected from the pressures of early marriage and been allowed to finish her schooling instead. Bodily rights are human rights, and investing in SRHR achieves gender equality by empowering women with the freedom to choose and make informed decisions to improve their quality of life.
*Name has been changed to protect and respect the child’s identity
ARROW strives to enable women to be equal citizens in all aspects of their life by ensuring their sexual and reproductive health and rights are achieved. See the full recommendations from the Asia Regional Dialogue here.
Sharon Shum traveled to Bangkok, Thailand with support from ARROW.