New project: Feminist answers to persisting social inequalities

A looming slowdown of global trade triggers social issues. A comeback of conservatism cements persistent inequalities: Those are the challenges of the neoliberal age and they call for feminist answers. In light of this, FES wants to put political feminism back on the map of Asia.

Photo: FES India Office FES staff from offices in Asia preparing for the regional project, Bangkok, September 2016 by FES / Mila Shopova - Jyoti Rawal (left) and Damyanty Sridharan

Looking at gender equality in Asia, it is hard to underestimate the progress that was made over the last decades. Globalisation, industrialisation and trade have helped millions of Asian women gain access to jobs, education and health services.

But there is a downside. Most women perform low-skilled, low-paid and vulnerable jobs, and in many Asian countries the socio-cultural norms of patriarchy are dominant. Women today still carry the double burden of work and family responsibilities, with their partners and the state doing little to help. Neoliberal growth models produce structural and legal discrimination. Sexual violence remains prevalent, as neither governments or political parties nor trade unions have made the feminist cause a centrepiece of their endeavour.

Problems of social justice, equality and decent work need a feminist response

Problems of social justice, equality and decent work brought on by the globalisation and integration of markets need a feminist response. To formulate it, and to change the dynamics that reinforce gender inequalities, women activists need to analyse economic contexts and form new alliances that cross social and national borders. As studies by FES show, the landscape of women’s movements in Asia is highly fractured. But in order to tackle the persisting inequality between women and men in Asia, feminists, progressive politicians and the labour movement need to stop thinking and acting in silos.

Preparing for a new regional project, FES has invited as participants representatives of existing feminist approaches from culturally and politically diverse regions. The aim is to work together towards transfiguration, using innovative approaches and alternative methods, in short, to inhabit the FES “FutureLab.” The objective is to formulate new approaches and let innovative ideas germinate unimpeded.

Together with experts from seven countries in Asia, FES offices in the region did, in a first step, extensive groundwork by preparing comprehensive studies on the past and present of feminist movements in Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines and Thailand.

The Asian feminist landscape has common features but very heterogeneous particulars

The resulting findings illustrate that the Asian feminist landscape has common features but very heterogeneous particulars.

Feminists in Bangladesh and Pakistan struggle with fundamentalist actors that accuse progressive women of driving a “westernized” agenda. In Indonesia, the situation is similar: necessary work towards equality is seen with suspicion by members of the establishment, which is growing more conservative.

Activists in India bemoan the closing of democratic spaces, pressured by nationalist opponents and a persistent problem of sexual violence in dominant patriarchal settings.

In China, gender equality has been a successful national policy for decades, but as the implementation was led by men, some feminist issues remain unsolved and progress is lagging.

In the meantime, in both Thailand and the Philippines progressive women and feminists have made impressive progress over the last decades. By forming broad alliances, they could influence political decisions and change the existing law. But in both countries the younger generation seem to have lost interest in feminist topics – just at a time where both Philippines and Thailand witness a pushback by the conservative elites.

Women’s movements in Asian countries part of the project are highly active and dynamic but deeply fragmented

In all of the Asia countries involved in the project, women’s movements are highly active and dynamic but deeply fragmented. Groups seem to be acting in shrinking political spaces and are facing mounting pressures from neo-conservative and neo-fundamentalist trends in their respective societies.

Against this backdrop, together with Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, participants in the new regional project will embark on an analytical deconstruction of existing inequalities and power structures. Their findings should inform the debate on feminism, development and globalisation in Asia.

With its regional project on Political Feminism in Asia, FES will continue to promote gender equality, a key element of social justice.

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