Women in the New Asia
by Yayori Matsui
reviewed by Anna Pha
"Mothers holding babies in their arms, sunburned old women with white hair, all varieties of women participated in the demonstration. They came, travelling from distant mountain villages on foot or riding several different buses, bringing with them the smell of the soil from their home places. Urban activist women, their saris fluttering in a stylish manner, energetic women students, participated in the march, creating a lively atmosphere." The event is the 1996 International Women's Day march in the ancient capital of Nepal, Kathmandu. Yayori Matsui, in Nepal for an international conference, joined the march. Later, in Kabul village, Yayori Matsui is sitting with about 20 other rural women in a circle on a mat in the yard. "I went to Kathmandu recently, where I shouted `Equality between men and women!' It was such a great feeling!", said a cheerful elderly woman. "Because I do not own my own land, I work as a farm worker every day. Although men can earn 80 rupees per day [US$2], women get only 40 rupees. I used to accept this, but now I feel it's not right, it's unfair. So I went to Kathmandu to walk and raise my voice with many other women." The village women have formed a women's group that connects and assists isolated village women. In Women in the New Asia, Yayori describes the poverty and hardship these women face and how they have formed a co-op to fund projects to raise chickens and goats, provide basic sanitation, literacy classes, and other activities. Nepal is just one of a number of the author's many trips to Asia and attendance at international conferences she relates in Women in the New Asia. The author was a journalist with the Japanese newspaper, Asahi Shimbun, for over 30 years and this experience is reflected in her quick flowing and easy to read style. Yayori takes up specific effects on women and their responses to the impact of globalisation and western development in a range of countries including Thailand, the Philippines, Nepal, South Korea, Burma, India, Japan and Cambodia. The focus is on the women, little is said about the developers, loggers, traffickers and others who are inflicting the pain. Anyone looking at the book for a political or economic analysis of the situation will be disappointed. Although the publication date in Australia is February 22, 1999, the book appears to have been written before the recent financial crisis and the conclusion talks in terms of "The Asian Miracle" and "Rising Asia". This, however, does not in any way invalidate its contents. In the introduction, readers are reminded of the 12 critical areas of concern for women that were listed in the "Platform for Action" adopted by Fourth UN World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995. These are poverty, education, health, violence against women, armed conflict, economic participation, decision making, the advancement of women, women's human rights, the media, the environment, and the girl child. Yayori uses her travels to give examples of these. There is the trafficking of women for sexual slavery — Japan the most common destination — generating a US$30 billion plus "industry". Yayori Matsui describes the spread of AIDS to Thailand, Burma, India and neighbouring countries. There is the abuse of migrant women workers, a critical issue in the Asian region. "... in addition to the problems shared with male workers, such as unpaid wages, a portion of their wages being taken by agents, overwork, no days off and passport confiscation, women workers face unique problems, such as sexual violence at the hands of male employers and family members and other human rights' violations." Yayori Matsui reports that the number of Indonesian workers in Malaysia has reached one million, with half of them being illegal migrants, and the number of overseas migrant workers in Asia is a staggering 13 million. The government of Indonesia has deliberately promoted the export of labour to alleviate high unemployment and gain foreign currency. Some 100,000 Filipinas work in Hong Kong and 60,000 in Singapore. The book highlights some specific cases of sexual violence and some of the measures adopted to assist migrant workers. "The problems related to Asian women migrant workers will not be solved until discrimination against women is eliminated and the unfair economic system is changed", says Yayori Matsui. Children are also a central subject of the book. One chapter is devoted to the Japanese-Filipino children (and their mothers) — an estimated 10,000 of them have been deserted by their Japanese fathers. Japanese immigration laws prevent the mothers and children entering Japan to meet or negotiate with the fathers. Yayori Matsui attended the Asia-Pacific Conference on Domestic Violence in Phnom Penh in 1994 where a report on domestic violence in Cambodia was presented. "The report describes how the men, traumatized by their daily experience of the bloody massacre, act out their violence on wives who are in a weaker position." She reports on support being given to women in Malaysia and Korea. There are several chapters dealing with the forced evictions of people and communities for "development" purposes. Other chapters cover the "Philippines Development Plan" serving Japanese corporate interests; the struggle of Thai village women against eucalyptus plantations and shrimp cultivation; and the fight of the indigenous people of Sarawak (Borneo) against deforestation and dam construction. The author cites examples of alternatives such as the Negros Campaign in the Philippines with the development of agricultural co-operatives. The book is basically descriptive. Important issues are raised through concrete examples. It does not take up the processes of "development" or globalisation, the operations of the transnational corporations or analyse the issues and causes beyond a few scattered comments. But on several occasions links are made between the problems facing women such as their conscription as migrant labour, sexual slavery and subjection to domestic violence — and their poverty. There is a call for international solidarity: "It is vitally important for women to strengthen their global solidarity as women, in order to confront the globalisation of free market economics, a process forcing people to join the race to the bottom." In the final chapter, "Women Envision a New Asia", the finger is pointed at the "current global market economy — that is, the free-trade movement", but the author then says it "is a policy promoted by men ..." "... women require an alternative economic system", she says, despite an earlier reference to the exploitation experienced by men as well as women. "... the root cause of the ecological crisis can be seen to be the obliteration of the feminine principle: living in harmony with nature and supporting life." I was left with the impression that men, not the capitalist system, are being blamed. This sudden burst of feminism at the expense of a class outlook took me by surprise. It seemed out of place with the text that went before it and only emerges at the very end. However, it does not detract from the importance or validity of the material in the book or make it any less worthy of study.
* * *Women in the New Asia by Yayori Matsui, published by Spinifex Press (Australia), 224pp, rrp $27.95.