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Members, partners and allies of APWLD renew calls for Asia-Pacific governments to end all forms of attacks, release and drop the trumped up charges against all women human rights defenders in the region.

Elizabeth Tang (Photo from the International Domestic Workers Federation - IDWF)

Triggered by the recent arrest of Elizabeth Tang, General Secretary of International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) and former Chief Executive of Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HCKTU), feminists and women activists express solidarity to Elizabeth, pointing out the alarmingly worsening attacks against women human rights defenders in Asia-Pacific

Padmini Weerasooriya of Women’s Centre Sri Lanka notes that the shrinking of civic spaces in the region has become one of the major issues that human rights defenders and civil society organisations in general are facing these days. 

“Governments are targeting human rights defenders for speaking about the issues that people face. Human rights defenders face threats, attacks and different forms of violence, and women human rights defenders are exposed to additional, unique and gender-specific risks such as gender-based discrimination, threats, marginalisation and barriers,” Padmini explains. 

Elizabeth has been a prominent women leader in the international labour movement who returned only to Hong Kong to visit her husband, imprisoned union leader Lee Cheuk-yan. 

She was arrested by the national security police shortly after visiting her husband on March 9, just a day after the International Women’s Day. She was charged with ‘foreign collusion’, she was granted bail of HK$200,000 (USD 25,498) and was ordered to handover her passport as bail conditions, two days after detention.

Elizabeth’s case, unfortunately, is not an isolated case. In fact, international and regional reports suggest that from 2019 to 2021 only, WHRDs are the second-most targeted group of defenders, with over 400 cases recorded across 21 Asian countries. Worse, the numbers remain conservative as many cases are not reported and documented. 

As the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) puts it, “The arrest of labour rights defenders represents an attack on the rights and freedoms of all workers, not just that individual human rights defender. This type of harassment is a clear attempt to instil fear in those who are campaigning for fairer working conditions and a more just society.”

“The work of people like Elizabeth has changed the world for the better. Without them, we wouldn’t have pensions, sick leave, holiday pay, maternity pay and all the other rights and entitlements that many of us take for granted,” GAATW adds.

APWLD Labour Programme Officer Andi Cipta Asmawaty also notes how governments like Hong Kong weaponised national security laws to legitimise attacks against labour defenders.

“For decades, Elizabeth has been leading the national labour movement and fighting for labour rights including social protection of women workers across the sectors. Her activism expands to international labour movements - particularly by organising and mobilising domestic workers' collective power across the world. Rather than recognising her work, and the crucial contributions of labour rights defenders, HK government continues to target, arrest and harrass labour defenders under the national security laws,” Andi points out.

Meanwhile in the Philippines, women human rights and labour rights defenders are subjected to state-sponsored attacks. In the recently concluded International Labour Organisation (ILO) High Level Tripartite Mission in the Philippines, Kilusang Mayo Uno, an independent labour centre in the Philippines, shared that the mission included 34 cases of attacks against women workers - two cases of killings, two cases of abduction and enforced disappearance, 13 cases of illegal arrest and detention and 17 cases of arrest during strike - apart from the numerous cases red-tagging, forced disaffiliation and harassment. 

Despite the grim situation, Filipino labour activist and KMU officer Kara Taggaoa, one of the two activists arrested and detained by the Philippine Police in October, reassures that women human rights defenders and labour rights defenders remain steadfast in fighting for workers’ rights amid the attacks.

“Women workers' exercise of their rights has long been impeded by state-sponsored violations of the right to organise and freedom of association. Despite and in spite of these challenges, we move forward for the sake of our people and future generations, as there's no genuine democracy and development if women are left behind,” Kara shares.

Azra Talat Sayeed of Roots For Equity, Pakistan emphasises that international solidarity plays an important role in fighting for the rights of women across all sectors.

"It is critical for activists and society and stand with women workers rights defenders as we live under a vicious imperialist system where working women are being forced into inhumane working conditions - activists who stand up for the rights of these highly exploited workforce they face brutal repression from  our state apparatus, of course in service to corporate power. We can only defeat corporate hegemony by creating broad unity, nationally and internationally,” Azra concludes. 

APWLD, together with its members, partners and allies, commit to continue the fight for women human rights defenders, stand against criminalisation of civil society, trade unions, and peoples’ democracy movements and hold relevant government authorities to account.

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