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Asia: from inequality, violence

Inequality or an imbalance in the way power is experienced, creates instability and gives rise to violence. In more equal populations violence is much reduced.

The source of inequality is the pervasive cultural, social and conceptual belief that women are created for men, and men are superior. This superiority results in the notion of 'possessing' the object. This is true in society and church.

I come from Singapore where the tendency is to think that wealth, economic progress, excellent health care and education automatically means that gender equality has also been achieved. Many men and women believe that there is no need for vigilance towards gender inequality in the workplace and at home; domestic violence, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and commodifying of the female body. The myth is debunked by a visit to the Association for Women's Action and Research (AWARE) (http://www.aware.org.sg/) where a helpline, shelter and emergency assistance is provided for women who are victims of violence. The Singapore Council of Women's Organisations also has a shelter for women and children in need of protection. An example of inequality that creates violence is the presence of 'foreign brides' in Singapore. Singaporean men of poor education who are unable to find a marriage partner look to Vietnam and China where poverty pushes women to accept these proposais in order to provide for their families.

According to Ms Chong Ning Qian, research exécutive at AWARE, "foreign wives coming from poorer socio-economic backgrounds than their Singaporean husbands can be more vulnerable to abuse. Depending on their husbands for residency, citizenship status and the right to work puts these women in an unequal position and makes it harder for those facing abuse to seek help."

Women and girl-children are seen as commodities or burdens in so many countries of Asia as can be seen from the customs and laws surrounding marriage and sexuality. One common example of this imbalance is 'child brides'. The organisation 'Girls Not Brides' tells the stories of many young girls forced into marriage and subjected to domestic bullying and abuse. Abuse comes from the husband's family who treat her as a slave and often taunt her because the family could not afford to pay the dowry demanded. The husband is often much older and forces himself on the girl. The fact that many girls Buffer grievous abuse and die has led some countries to enact laws to ban marriages before the girl has turned 18.

One bright light in this dark scene is the story of Amrita of Nepal who was able to persuade her parents not to accept her marriage proposal when she was sixteen and to wait until she was at least twenty and has since completed her education.

The United Nations Women's Committee in Singapore has said, "Most importantly, members of society must be persuaded to review and transform the traditional attitudes and behaviours that reduce women to an inferior role in society and encourage male violence. The education of boys and men to see women as equal partners is invaluable to building a society geared towards peace and progress".

In his message for the World Day of Prayer for Peace, 2017, Pope Francis talks about the need for egual rights and respect between nations to avoid violence and conflict. Applying the same principie, inequality and the conviction that men are somehow morally and physically superior engenders the bullying stance and significantly influences our responses to events and encounters. In both Evangelium Gaudium and Amoris Laetitia Pope Francis calls domestic violence a threat not only to the well being of women but a threat also to the family and society. He narres patriarchal structures as responsible for the prevalente of violence against women and in society.

Notice the continuing connection between inequality and violence. We see this happening often in the case of Foreign Domestic Workers (FDWs) in Asia and the Middle East where the law favours the employer. FDWs are not considered equal to citizens in terms of legal rights and when sexually or verbally abused and beaten they feel trapped and helpless. Inequality before the law is another aspect of inequality that is often the backdrop for violence and injustice.

The feeling of being trapped is not only in the case of migrant workers tied to a particular employer with no right to seek other employment. It is also the case for millions of women who are caught in marriages where their customs and culture has them tied into endless days of hard work, while being malnourished, uneducated and last in the queue for healthcare.

What was very common until the early part of the 20th century still lingers on today even in relatively well-off families in many Asian cultures. Daughters-in­law are expected to do all the household chores and respond to all the unreasonable demands of her in-laws without complaining. In her book, "From Fear to Freedom" Dr Rilly Ray Rajkumar describes the life of her mother in Calcutta as endless days of exhausting chores without any support or care from her in-laws. To ensure that her daughters did not Buffer the same fate she persuaded her husband to go to Malaya which was at that time under British rute. They moved just before the war broke out in 1942 but eventually have done really well with all the girls reaching the top of their professions.

Another significant factor that creates the environnent for violence against women is poverty. In societies where inequality is culturally enforced, poverty makes life intolerable for women and children much more so than for men. When money is short or non existent, the last to eat are the women, the last to receive education are the girl-children and only the boys are able to benefit from any health care provisions. Girls are sold to agents who sell them into prostitution and work that amounts to slavery with little or no wages and no rights. In 2001 I met a young woman in Bangkok, Thailand who came from the North East of the country. She was still a teenager and was a single mother. She wanted to provide for her child so she left her child with her family who were very poor farmers to find work in the city. She ended up in Bangkok trapped into working in the sex trade until she was rescued by an NGO and was helped to set up a small business selling butterfly doughnuts using a Street vendor's cart. When I met her she had friends and felt safe after many months of traumatic sexual and physical violence.

The realization of a mural for the headquarters of the Singapore Council of Womens’ Organizations

Women find it profoundty disappointing that the church is unable to provide the witness needed to change perceptions of male-female equality and complementarity. The scandalous behaviour of many Catholic clergy and religious men against women and children comes from a sense of impunity which stems from the deep seated belief in the superiority of the man. Rather than challenging society with the Gospel, in so many instances the church is a counter-witness. The clergy — laity divide is insurmountable even with male laity so what more with the female laity. Here is a simple example.

In Singapore all altar servers are boys. The explanation for banning girls as altar servers is that serving at Mass leads many boys to consider priesthood as their vocation. Girls would be a distraction and may cause a reduction in the number of boys serving at Mass and answering the call to priesthood There may be unintended outcomes. Firstly, the perception that girls cannot serve at the altar because they are somehow less worthy and less holy. The 'vocation' of women is not important. The inequality is existential. The book of Genesis says, 'male and female he created them, in the image of God he created them.' How can the church lead in society against the violence meted out to women if the root causes of violence are not recognised or addressed?

There is a very long list of crimes against women. 'Honor' killings of women who are accused of 'shaming' their families in their relationships, dress or defiance; Selective abortions where the girl-foetus is aborted as the couple only want a boy. This was rampant in China until the more recent relaxation of the 'one child policy'. In India it is illegal but still widely practiced. One study suggests that there are 10 million girls missing from the Indian population. Besides selective abortions female infanticide still exists.

Many women, innocent victims of war, have suffered rape and torture. Thousands suffer the shame of rape, widowhood and abandonment. This is true in Sri Lanka and in many parts of South and South East Asia where ethnic groups fight the military.

A multi-pronged approach is needed. Education for all with special emphasis on educating women and men to their dignity and rights. Preferential care for the educating of girls and women. Helping Christians wherever they are present with evangelising cultures with the Gospel both in the Church and in society so we can fight the inequalities from our faith perspective. Alleviation of poverty with special care for women and children abandoned by their families. Adequate Housing to support family life. Family life education for men and women to create better marriage partnerships. Finally, a reform of church structures to witness to Jesus Christ who brought us all embracing and equal love.

Wendy Louis

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St. Peter’s Square

Aug. 17, 2019

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