Foreigners and Taiwanese Unite for Women’s Rights

Foreigners and Taiwanese Unite for Women’s Rights
Credit: Iping Liang‎ via Facebook
What you need to know

'I think what makes this event special is that we’re actually uniting Taiwanese people and foreigners.'

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Local activists, legislators and U.S. expats marked International Women’s Day on Wednesday by taking to the streets in Taipei in support of women’s rights in an event dubbed the “Women’s March Taiwan” that highlighted the challenges faced by women in Taiwan and around the world.

Nearly 100 marchers holding red balloons and donning the iconic knit “pussyhats” marched from the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall to Daan Forest Park in the late afternoon.

Organizers say the march was aimed at raising awareness of a broad set of issues including violence against women, reproductive rights, LGBTQIA rights, immigrant rights, and environmental conservation.

“I think what makes this event special is that we’re actually uniting Taiwanese people and foreigners,” says Crystal Liu, a Taiwanese artist who helped organize the event. “It’s about women’s rights, and it's also about humans rights.” She pointed to the diversity of the group that assembled, which included men, women, nationals of several countries, as well as Taiwanese representatives from Greenpeace and an advocate for the rights of immigrants livings in Taiwan.

Dual U.S.-Taiwan citizen Helen Yeh, who also helped organize the march, said she was glad to see a wide variety of causes represented. “Whenever we talk about any issue, whether it is human rights or environmental protection, women are involved because women make up half the population,” she said.

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Photo Credit: Jean-Jacques Chen
Global reach

The Taipei event was held in solidarity with Wednesday’s international “Women’s Strike,” which saw women around the world stop all forms of work or refrain from other kinds of economic activity to demonstrate women’s contributions to society. This global action was called for by the organizers of the January Women’s March, held a day after the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump.

U.S. politics also figured large in Taipei’s event. Organizers included Indivisible Taiwan, a group made up largely of U.S. expats that formed after President Trump’s inauguration to carry out grassroots political action from Taiwan aimed at applying pressure to lawmakers in the U.S.

The marchers were fairly evenly mixed between expats and locals, and Yeh, who is also a member of Indivisible Taiwan, says she believes activists from both groups have a lot to offer one another. “U.S. expats living here have a very privileged perspective because we have an appreciation of Taiwanese democracy, and from this perspective we have a new way of looking at what’s going on in America,” she says. “And on the other hand, because we’re expats in Taiwan, we can be a very good source for Taiwanese people understanding what’s happening in America beyond the news sources and beyond what they get on Taiwanese news or newspapers, so I think it’s a very fruitful, very constructive exchange that we can build together.”

U.S. expat and Taiwan resident Jenna Cody says she appreciates the chance to get involved. “As an expat, I don’t see a lot of avenues to take actions to make my voice heard or to be an activist,” she says. “So this is one way to do that. At least I’m here and lending my body to the crowd. It’s something.”

Taiwan law places tight restrictions on foreigner involvement in volunteering activities, frustrating the efforts of many expats getting involved in local causes.

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Photo Credit: Jean-Jacques Chen
Workplace inequality looms large

As the marchers set off from the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial, key organizer Jane Wang proclaimed, “We’re starting a movement here.”

About 20 high school aged students in attendance added in chants of “男女平等” (male-female equality) and “girls just want to have fundamental rights” to the otherwise staid procession.

After congregating at a plaza within the complex that makes up the Daan Forest Park Metro Station, prominent speakers took to a small elevated platform for a series of speeches outlining their concerns for gender equality in Taiwan.

Many warned that family obligations and societal expectations are preventing Taiwan’s women from becoming full participants in Taiwan’s working life. “Many women in Taiwan are pressured to quit work due to marriage so that in Taiwan, women’s rate of participation in the workforce is only about 50 percent,” said DPP Legislator Yu Mei-nu (尤美女). She said the participation gap continues to affect the economic wellbeing of women into old age. “Diminished earnings earlier in life mean that after retirement these women get less in pension and so even though we are reforming pension laws, women’s rights are being neglected.”

Yu celebrated recent legislative successes, including the passage over the last few decades of the Act of Gender Equality and Employment, the Gender Equity Education Act, and the Sexual Harassment Prevention Act. However, Yu said a number of challenges remain for gender equality, and she called for more effort to secure full pay equality, further support for maternity leave, and the passage of a bill legalizing same-sex marriage.

Lu Yi-jen of Lean in Taiwan, a group inspired by the work of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg that advocates for workplace equality, blamed cultural factors for women’s low participation rate. “In Asian culture, taking care of the home chores and the children is the responsibility of women,” she said. “Men help out much less, so women need to worry about both the domestic work and their own careers. This is a very difficult burden.”

She says it is rare for women to rise to positions of power in Taiwan, subsequently workplace policies often fail to take into account the needs of women. “Right now, the most important issue for Taiwan is that men need to come out and support women more, and at the same time, women need to be more aggressive in the workplace.”

Many attendees also expressed concern for the treatment of the hundreds of thousands of women migrant workers in Taiwan from Southeast Asia, who largely work as domestic workers within Taiwanese homes. Legislator Yu pointed to a recent U.S. Department of State report detailing human rights issues in Taiwan that found that foreign domestic workers and caregivers are among the groups most vulnerable to abuse.

One attendee lamented that no one of Southeast Asian heritage was in attendance at the event, possibly reflecting the difficulty for these workers to find time for activities outside of work.

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Photo Credit: Jean-Jacques Chen
Sustaining focus

Organizers say they have planned to follow up the event with a social media campaign throughout the remainder of this month they are calling “March-Long Campaign” that aims to raise awareness about challenges faced by women around the world. The event calls for supporters of women’s rights to share their stories and perspectives.

The speeches proceeded into the early evening, and the organizers seemed buoyed by the fact that attendees remained despite cold, wet weather. However, the test of any movement is sustaining activism after the rally disperses, a fact that Indivisible Taiwan founder Mary Goodwin alluded to in her statements. “We have to remember that the struggle for women’s rights, for gender equality is not a one-day event,” she said. “This needs to be a commitment that we make every single day for the rest of our lives.”

Editor: Edward White