COVID-19 and Women in East Asia: Collaboration toward a Redefinition of ‘Security’

In late 2020, the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung invited Japan-based NGO Peace Boat, in its capacity as the Regional Secretariat for the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC) in Northeast Asia, to convene a series of webinars on non-traditional security and COVID-19 in Northeast Asia. In this third and final webinar of the series, speakers addressed the gendered impact of COVID-19 in Asia, and how the pandemic affects women’s security.

Moderator Meri Joyce, GPPAC Northeast Asia Regional Liaison Officer, was joined by Ms Kim Jeongsoo from Women Making Peace in Korea, Dr Akibayashi Kozue from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) Kyoto, and Ms Ros Sopheap from Gender and Development for Cambodia (GADC), three leading women activists and researchers. The discussion illustrated many similarities within the region in terms of the gendered impacts, as speakers drew attention to a variety of structural issues on different levels of society. They emphasised the importance of greater collaboration within the region, and called for a redefinition of ‘security’, shifting from a military to a human-centered approach.

In her opening remarks, Ms Joyce said that in Asia, women are particularly bearing the brunt of the pandemic. She highlighted 2020 as a significant milestone year for the Women, Peace & Security Agenda, with the anniversaries of the United Nations Security Resolution 1325 and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. Ms Joyce asked participants to reflect on what kind of analysis or cooperation must be kept in mind from a gender perspective as we move towards the “new normal”, in order to ensure that issues of women’s security remain central as we “build back better”.

Ms Kim Jeongsoo: Women, Peace and Human Security

Ms Kim Jeongsoo, standing representative of Women Making Peace in Seoul and active in the women’s peace movement for more than thirty years, explained that Korean women in their twenties is one of the groups most impacted by the pandemic. Ms Kim introduced the concept of ‘Silent Killing’, describing the recurring trend that during periods of recession, young women in their twenties are the first to be laid off – including now during the COVID-19 pandemic. She explained that with the collapse of the public care system, care has once again become the family’s responsibility – a responsibility which typically falls on women. Along with an increase in domestic violence, this has put extreme pressure on women during the pandemic. As a result, Korea has seen a rise in depression and suicide especially among young women.

According to Ms Kim, the new health and safety threats brought on by the pandemic simply amplified already existing inequalities, showing that “the concept of ‘human security’ is as important as ever”. Korea’s President Moon Jae-in has echoed this sentiment and encouraged greater cooperation between the two Koreas in health and medical matters. According to Ms Kim, however, this declaration is not yet reflected in reality, as seen in the country’s increasing defence budget. “President Moon and the Korean government pursue peace by military power, but military security and human security go different ways.”

Ms Kim called for a strengthening of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, arguing that gender issues and the Korean peace process should be approached under a shared human security umbrella. Established in 1997, Women Making Peace is a leading group in the women’s peace movement in fields including inter-Korean women’s exchange, disarmament, and peace education. However, combining these efforts with a focus on gender issues in the region has not yet been done systematically, and should be a priority onwards, Ms Kim urged. In conclusion, she highlighted some key achievements of the women’s peace movement in 2020. In Korea’s third National Action Plan (NAP) on UNSC Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (2021-2023), the concept of women’s human security was included in the draft document, a result of advocacy by the movement. “This is a positive shift,” Ms Kim explained. “Until the second NAP, women were mainly perceived as victims of war and armed conflict. So this is big progress; from victimization of women to women as peace agents for the Korea peace process.”

Dr Akibayashi Kozue: A Feminist Approach to Security

Activist and scholar Dr Akibayashi Kozue joined the webinar from Japan. She is a member of the Kyoto branch of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), the world’s first international women’s peace organisation. Dr Akibayashi briefly introduced the COVID-19 situation in Japan and the gendered impact of the pandemic, which is very similar to that of Korea. Suicides in both countries increased by around 40%, more women lost their jobs, and there has been a rise in domestic violence. Women as essential workers and caregivers have been at a higher risk of infection, and due to a rise in household chores and care work, there has been a larger burden on women at home.

With decades of experience focusing on feminist analysis of peace and security, Dr Akibayashi criticised the way the Japanese government has approached the pandemic. The problem, she argued, lay in the prevalent notion of ‘protection’ where an external threat is to be met by force and military power. This “masculine approach to security is flawed, and as long as it exists, we cannot deal with situations such as pandemics,” she added. Instead, like Ms Kim, Dr Akibayashi called for a shift from ‘militarized security’ to ‘human security,’ with a focus on policies that prevent avoidable harm, meet basic needs, and respect individual dignity and identity. “Achieving a sense of safety and ensuring our survival cannot be done by the military,” she concluded, “human security needs to be central, not simply complement militarized state security.”

Ms Ros Sopheap – Economic Security Central to Human Security

The third speaker joining the webinar was Founder and Executive Director of Gender and Development for Cambodia (GADC), Ms Ros Sopheap. Under her direction, GADC has become a leader in capacity-building and advocacy on gender equality and women’s empowerment, and Ms Ros Sopheap provided an important perspective from local communities in Cambodia. Focusing on the primary challenges of women and girls during the pandemic, she explained how the pandemic has impacted in particular small businesses run by women which in turn has put pressure on women struggling to provide for their families. Worrying about their livelihoods and how to care for their families, many women are suffering from stress and anxiety. Moreover, many girls have left school to help generate income, risking falling behind on their education, or dropping out altogether. “Securing women’s economic security is central to women’s human security,” she emphasised, stressing the importance of prioritising employment creation for women in the post-pandemic recovery process.

Additionally, Ms Ros Sopheap highlighted that with children attending school from home and social distancing restrictions, women in the communities GADC works with have had reduced access to training and support, amplifying the strain on women and their mental health. There has also been an increase in domestic violence in Cambodia, typically against women and children. Addressing the root causes of discrimination and gender-based violence, GADC established the Cambodian Men’s Network, engaging men and boys to end violence and discrimination against women. During the pandemic, the network has functioned as a platform to deal with an increase in domestic violence stemming from men’s frustrations and challenges brought on by the uncertain situation. Ms Ros Sopheap emphasised, however, that more capacity-building and skills development are needed – something that more regional cooperation could contribute to.

This third and final webinar illustrated the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on a daily level, but also its connection to the greater regional and international levels through questions of military and human security. The speakers demonstrated how women throughout Asia have been affected disproportionately, and called attention to the importance of areas such as health and caregiving. The pandemic has accentuated the need to reconceptualize the notion of ‘essential workers’ to focus more on these areas, typically the responsibility of women. The speakers called for a redefinition of the concept of ‘security’ as well, shifting focus from militarized security to a human-centered approach, developing local, national and regional policies centred around equality, sustaining life, and collaboration.

Despite the added strain on women during the pandemic, based on experiences from the Korean peace process and the work of GADC in Cambodia, we can see a positive shift from women being seen as simply victims to being leading agents of peace and development. Advancing the Women, Peace and Security Agenda by strengthening the network of women in the region, and building a community of solidarity and collaboration, can play an essential role in bringing peace not only to the Korean Peninsula, but to the whole of Asia.

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