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How women in Asia are marching to #MeToo

Global, women-led #MeToo movement is finally gaining traction in Asia, as women across the region speak out against deeply-entrenched inequalities and address problems of violence against women.

A year after the #MeToo movement in the United States exposed a longstanding culture of sexual harassment in the workplace and held powerful men to account, women in Asia are bringing their own stories of sexual abuse and violence to the fore.

Across the region, women from countries such as South Korea, India, Japan and Thailand have taken a cue from the global women’s movement that has taken the world by storm and forced businesses to address the problem of sexual harassment at work. Challenging the patriarchal norms that have long served to silence women, celebrities and prominent figures in Asia are now speaking out about sexual misconduct at the hands of their male employers and counterparts.  

On 16 October, a year after an Indian woman journalist wrote about her harrowing experience of sexual harassment by her then-editor and now former minister Mobashar Jawed Akbar, he stepped down from his position within the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). His resignation came after the journalist, Priya Ramani, revealed his name on Twitter, spurring more victims of Akbar’s to reveal his predatory advances under the #MeToo hashtag.

Soon after, the political and media industries of the world’s largest democracy came under greater scrutiny as more Indian journalists and actresses publicly shared their incidents of sexual harassment. In a recent article by Anjuli Pandit, head of corporate sustainability at international banking group BNP Paribas, she also wrote about the sexual harassment she faced working for Tata Group, a major multinational company headquartered in India.

India is no stranger to media attention for its high prevalence of sexual harrassment and cases of violence against women. In January, India received international condemnation after an eight-year-old girl in Kashmir was kidnapped and raped for days before her death by a group of Indian men. In 2016, it was reported that six women were gang-raped in India every day. 

Indian cities New Delhi, Jaipur and Udaipur have since unleashed all-female police squads in an effort to battle sexual harassment on the street and defeat a culture that perpetuates violence against women. 

In an opinion piece on India’s #MeToo movement by Indian journalist Rana Ayyub, she wrote: “[Women] will no longer stand for this kind of silence. Women have decided to rebel against the norms they have long been asked to conform to. What started as a foreign import has become a moment of reckoning at home.”

When women feel that they will not be heard, that they will not be believed, that they will never see justice, what is their incentive for reporting on these crimes against them?

Anna-Karin Jatfors, deputy regional director for Asia-Pacific, United Nations Women

Elsewhere in Asia, women journalists in Japan forged their own interpretations of #MeToo, with female protestors marching under the banner #WithYou, as an expression of solidarity with victims of sexual harassment in the media industry. Activists aimed to shed light on the fear women face when reporting cases of assault and address the culture of victim-shaming that is embedded in many societies not just in Asia, but worldwide.  

“We have not seen quite the same uptake of #MeToo in this part of the world compared to other countries,” said Anna-Karin Jatfors, deputy regional director for Asia-Pacific at United Nations (UN) Women. “Women are very aware of the risks of speaking out. When women feel that they will not be heard, that they will not be believed, that they will never see justice, what is their incentive for reporting on these crimes against them?”

However, although #MeToo did not cause quite the same spark in Asia as it did in the United States, in countries such as Singapore, the movement emboldened more women to report crimes against them and seek professional help.

“There was a 79 per cent increase in the number of people reaching out to us in late 2017,” said Corinna Lim, executive director of Singapore’s leading gender equality advocacy group Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE). “It is clear that the global #MeToo movement has encouraged sexual violence survivors to share their experiences, seek professional support, and empower one another.”

Violence against women costs the economy

As high-profile perpetrators in the West were forced out of power by the #MeToo movement, women in Asia have adopted the hashtag to address issues plaguing not just the female workforce but women at home. Such problems include domestic abuse, marital rape, murder and deeply-ingrained inequalities that stem from traditional gender stereotypes.

Indian women activists participate in a protest rally to fight sexual violence against women in Kolkata, India on December 7, 2015. Image: Sonali Pal Chaudhury/NurPhoto via Getty Images

According to Jatfors, violence against women remains pervasive in both public and private spaces in Asia, which not only affects women’s well-being but also the economy. She said: “We see that women are taking sick leave and losing their productivity and ability to thrive at work, all of which affects businesses.”

“The costs of violence are not only borne by women themselves, but by the whole society,” she said, adding that in Vietnam, violence against women accounts for almost 3 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The 2016-2017 annual report by UN Women also revealed that governmental action on women’s protection from sexual harassment and domestic violence costs much less than when governments do nothing to address the problem. According to the report, delivering comprehensive support services to women who experience violence only constitutes 0.25 per cent of GDP in Laos—a tiny fraction of the financial loss related to gender-based violence. Such costs include health services, access to justice and lost opportunities for work and education.

How can business create safe spaces for women?

Earlier this month, employees at Google Singapore were the first to stage a massive exit from their office as part of #GoogleWalkouts, a series of strikes organised in protest of the tech giant’s leniency towards sexual misconduct by top male executives. According to the New York Times, Google had kept silent about harassment allegations surrounding three high-ranking employees, even offering one of them a $90 million exit package when he resigned in 2014.

Close to 17,000 employees from 40 offices worldwide, including Tokyo, Berlin, Zurich, London and New York, took part in the global demonstration. A few of the demands put forth by leaders of the protest signified discontent with the lack of effective channels for reporting and resolving claims of harassment. The demands included a publicly disclosed sexual harassment transparency report and a clear, inclusive process for reporting sexual misconduct safely and anonymously.

According to Jatfors, the time has come for companies to strictly enforce a zero-tolerance policy towards sexual harassment and take action when codes of conduct are broken. She said that women who report sexual assault cases often lose their careers because policies that currently serve to protect women in the workplace are not enforced or not made a priority.

“Some of our clients who experience workplace harassment have reported that their human resource departments were not equipped to provide them with support,” echoed Lim, adding that there were employers that went as far as to make employees sign non-disclosure agreements to prevent them from speaking out about harassment.

Both Lim and Jatfors also cited the lack of gender diversity in the workforce and in leadership positions as an important link to the incidence of sexual harassment in the workplace. According to Lim, “inclusive workplaces will have higher female board representation and less frequent occurrences of workplace harassment.”

Jatfors emphasised the role of companies in promoting positive messages that challenge gender stereotypes through their marketing practices, calling advertising a powerful tool that can help uplift women’s status in society and make companies perform better. 

However, she believes that gender biases and discriminatory attitudes towards women need to be eliminated on a societal level before equality can be achieved in the workforce. 

“As a society the image of women as inferior persists, which harms companies’ efforts at having equality in the workplace,” said Jatfors.

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