Safeguarding women’s rights in the Asia-Pacific: A comparative study of the Philippines and South Korea

This op-ed is part of AASYP’s Digital Dialogues 2021, which is a programme that aims to provide a platform and forum for future leaders from across the region to contribute to the policymaking and diplomacy sphere by engaging in issues relating to Gender and Diversity, Green Recovery, and Emerging Economies.

The Philippines is considered a cornerstone in the Asia-Pacific for its success in minimising economic and occupational disparities between men and women as evidenced in the country’s gender gap reduction by 78 per cent. However, with widespread media attention centred on the case of Christine Dacera, whose suspicious death elicited victim-blaming from much of the male Filipino community, it is clear that gender disparities remain pervasive. 

Though the Philippines has enacted laws protecting women, these statutes possess imprecise definitions and outdated stereotypes. This is illustrated in enduring illegality of abortion and the failure to address contemporary forms of gender-based violence. To eliminate these deficiencies and ensure the legal protection of women, the Philippines must amend existing statutes concerning these issues. In this paper, inequities in Philippine legislation will be comparatively examined against South Korea, which has significantly amended existing laws with the impetus of safeguarding the rights of contemporary women.

The role of context in influencing the law

Both countries differ in their approach to women’s rights in the current context despite their patriarchal histories. For instance, South Korean Confucianism stemming from the Goryeo period stresses the subservience of women to their husbands. This is similar to paterfamilias, a concept introduced to the Philippines during Spanish colonisation recognising the oldest male as the family leader. These influences continue to affect society’s outlook on women in contemporary Asia, though it is up to current administrations to respond to these outdated influences, as can be seen in both nations’ contradictory policies on women’s rights. In the Philippines, bereft protection of women’s rights exemplifies ties to its colonial past. Contrastingly, South Korea has distanced itself from Confucianist values as exhibited in the decriminalisation of abortion and revision of gender-based violence—actions the Philippines must take in working towards addressing the gender gap. 

Abortion rights

The Philippines must follow South Korea in decriminalising abortion to protect the rights of women as well as its status as a gender-equal nation. Stemming from Spanish colonialism, abortion’s illegality is specified in subsections 256 to 259 of the Revised Penal Code of 1930. Repealing this age-old policy would ensure safe and ethical reproductive health practice; due to its criminalisation, over 1,000 Filipino women die yearly as a result of to unsafe abortions, with a further 90,000 suffering long-term health complications.

These statistics demonstrate the need to protect rights to female livelihood and bodily autonomy, both of which South Korea acknowledges. Recognising the need to safeguard women’s reproductive rights, abortion was ruled unconstitutional in 2019 and subsequently decriminalised since its ban in 1953. This followed concerns that the 1973 Mother and Child Act’s special circumstances allowing abortion were too narrow, thus endangering accessibility to the procedure. As reproductive rights are necessary to safeguard in all democracies, it is evident that the Philippines must follow suit as a democratic state renowned for its gender equality. 

Defining gender-based violence

Gender-based violence (GBV) remains an issue for Filipino women due to existing legislation’s failure in recognising contemporary forms of violence. According to the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, GBV constitutes ‘physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering’ against women—interchangeable with the phrase ‘violence against women’. The Philippine Republic Act 9262: Anti-Violence Against Women and Their Children Act of 2004 (Republic Act 9262) expands on GBV by simultaneously recognising the vulnerability of women and children to GBV. Though the Republic Act 9262 appears to safeguard women’s rights by incorporating the aforementioned declaration, its failure to recognise contemporary offences like revenge porn and cybercrime as GBV illustrates a need for revision. As two-thirds of reported revenge porn cases in the Philippines involve women, cybercrime must be included in the Republic Act 9262.

The Philippines can draw inspiration from South Korea, which has recognised the ubiquity of technological GBV in measures against molka—a Korean term referring to pornographic footage illegally obtained by spy cams. With over 6,470 reported cases in 2017 alone, offenders initially faced sanctions of ten million won (USD 8,000) and up to five years’ imprisonment under the Act on Special Cases Concerning the Punishment, Etc. of Sexual Crimes 2010. As a consequence of amendments made to the latter in 2018, molka has been treated with greater severity as evidenced in increasing fines up to 30 million won (USD 25,000) and daily inspections of public restrooms where molka is commonplace. South Korea’s pragmatism exemplifies the Philippines’ need to legally acknowledge the status of revenge porn as a gender-based form of violence

What can the Philippines do? 

The Philippines must mitigate inequalities faced by Filipino women by following South Korea’s example. This can be accomplished through revising outdated policies on the issues of abortion and gender-based violence—both of which South Korea has addressed through progressive law reform. Like South Korea, the Philippines must forgo its patriarchal roots and accommodate the needs of contemporary women in existing statutes. 

This article was written by Lianne Tacardon, edited by Aasha Sriram, and reviewed by the AASYP Publications Team.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the writer and in no way represent nor reflect the position of AASYP and members of the AASYP Publications Team. The AASYP Horizons Blog provides a platform for the free expression of opinions and intellectual discourse.

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