On October 10th, one day before International Day of the Girl Child, four young activists originating from different corners of Asia convened at Tainan, Taiwan for the Asian Girls Human Rights Ambassador Award.
The event was coordinated by the Garden of Hope Foundation and the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These prominent activists were Hadiqa Bashir from Pakistan, Inessa Arshakyan from Armenia, Zolzaya Ganbold from Mongolia and Peng Liang-yu (彭亮瑜) from Taiwan.
The prize was awarded to 14-year old Hadiqa Bashir who became the first Pakistani to receive the award. Hadiqa Bashir was almost forced to marry a taxi driver when she was 9 years old: she vehemently fought against her fate, eventually received the support of her uncle, and won. Ever since, she has been fighting against the tradition of child marriage, creating her own organization to help girls avoid forced marriages and heal from male violence. She is the recipient of the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award.
Inessa Arshakyan is the founder of a charitable organization funded through rock concerts: the profits are given to young girls from disadvantaged families. She has also organized activities linked to environment protection by teaching children from orphanages to recycle natural resources. She wishes to challenge selective abortions (female fetuses being disposed of due to a desire for male children), child marriages and girls being limited to housework.
Zolzaya Ganbold, who wants to give Mongolian women and girls a voice, has created a girls’ rights association in her own school, where she has managed to improve female-only spaces such as bathrooms. She intends to investigate the themes of sexual assault as well as trafficking.
As for Peng Liangyu, she is a proud marathon champion who wishes to challenge Taiwanese society’s pervasive stereotypes regarding women: her goal is to create a series of women-only marathons where they can discover their strength and express their selves.
Mayor of Tainan Lai Qinde (賴清) personally handed each young female activist a purple corolla: the corolla stands for the “determination of the southern cities to fight against violence” as well as their “commitment in defending the value of girls”. In his speech, Lai Qingde acknowledged that child brides have also existed in Taiwan from an early age (a tradition called tongyangxi 童養媳, literal meaning “child raised to become daughter-in-law”) and that Taiwanese society had failed to give women and girls the consideration they needed for a long time. According to him, all of these questions have been resolved following the transition to a democratic regime, and progress is obviously going strong since the Taiwanese, he argued, have recently elected their first female president (DPP chairperson Tsai Ying-wen 蔡英), along with many women entering fields traditionally seen as “masculine” such as politics, police force or fire control. He urged representatives to learn from the young female ambassadors’ courage and as well as their spirit of devotion and sacrifice in creating a better world.
A nice speech, probably too nice, that pays lip service to the patriarchal oppression of women and girls but seems to essentially dismiss it as a thing of the past, while mentioning only “progress” in the present day. While it is true that Taiwanese women have much better access to education overall, with female students consistently outnumbering male students in universities since the nineties, they remain largely underrepresented in professions traditionally seen as “masculine” (civil service, management, politics) and the pay gap is still very much a reality. As for Tsai Ying-wen being elected president, the fact that a few women are in positions of power doesn’t necessarily mean that women will benefit as a class. Nor does it mean people are letting go of sexist ideas in general: in Taiwan, unmarried women who are over thirty are also being called “leftover women” (shengnü, 剩女), with the mayor of Taipei Ke Wenzhe (柯文哲) publicly calling them a “threat to national stability” in 2014. When it comes to reproductive rights, access to abortion is limited to certain cases (notably medical reasons and rape/incest) and requires the consent of a guardian, while not being covered by national health insurance. As for sexual assault, it is reported that victims endure such stigmatization they fail to report the crime, with the Ministry of Interior estimating that the total number of sexual assaults was 7 to 10 times the number reported to police. Typically, courts sentenced men convicted in domestic violence cases to less than six months in prison, with abused women being pressured by friends and relatives to renounce coming forward so as not to “disgrace their families”. Clearly, there’s still a *bit* of progress to be made.
It also seems, judging by the local media’s rendition of the speech, that Lai Qinde emphasized “progress” while failing to mention the key role played by feminist organizations such as the Awakening Foundation (婦女新知基金會), the Warm Life Association for Women (晚晴協會) or the Rainbow Project (彩虹之家), who have been relentlessly fighting for decades in order to implement laws to protect women and girls from male violence, secure reproductive rights, provide recourse against sexual harassment in the workplace and on campus, help young Aboriginal girls targeted by sex traffickers, etc. It is odd that this Taiwanese politician would not mention the role played by Taiwanese women’s rights activists in a speech directed at, well, women’s rights activists.
Following the ceremony, the young activists gathered with twenty-five delegates from Tainan county for an informal discussion on the topic of women’s rights.
Central issues tackled in the discussion included physical and mental health, education and labor power, personal safety, media, and traditions. Professed long-term goals were to rouse the general public into attaching importance to the rights of girls while challenging the pattern of sex discrimination still present in contemporary societies.
On International Day of the Girl Child, a report by UNICEF found that girls spend 40 per cent more time doing unpaid domestic labor than boys around the world.