By Rosalyn Chen, Every Woman Coalition
In February I celebrated the Chinese New Year with my fellow Asian Americans in San Francisco. At the end of the festivities, organizers handed everyone a whistle with instructions on how to use it in case we were attacked. They told us that if we or someone nearby was the target of a hate crime, we could blow the whistle as a cry for help. What was supposed to be a community celebration for the onset of the Year of the Tiger quickly became a reminder of the racism and misogyny that Asian American women must navigate day to day.
Violence against Asian Americans, and Asian American women especially, has spiked. Friends now gift me pepper spray. We gather at self-defense trainings. Our group chats are filled with suggestions about how to stay safe in the face of threats, harassment, and violence.
The coalition Stop Asian American Pacific Islander Hate reported that there were nearly 11,000 hate incidents between March 2020 and December 2021. Over 61 percent were against women. Recently three women of Korean descent were shot at a Dallas hair salon. Other brutal attacks include the New York City murders of Christina Yuna Lee, who was followed into her apartment before being stabbed to death, and Michelle Go, who was violently pushed onto subway tracks. There have been unprovoked attacks against our elders, including the 70-year-old woman in Boston’s Chinatown who was punched in the face. And we can’t forget the Atlanta Spa shootings, where six women of Asian descent were murdered.
The racism that emerged in response to COVID-19 has indeed played a part in this recent spike in violence. Former President Trump’s racial slurs, describing the pandemic as the “Chinese virus” or “kung flu” has no doubt empowered people to carry out the type of public attacks that are on the rise. But sadly, this is not an entirely new phenomenon.
The US has a long and ugly history of sexual violence against Asian women in the Philippines, Japan, and Vietnam, when women were forced into the sex trade after their countries were invaded. Then and now, media and popular culture reinforce damaging narratives which fetishize and dehumanize Asian women.
Encouragingly, a new bill in California aims to curb anti-Asian attacks against women and other vulnerable groups by addressing harassment as a public health issue. This is an important and necessary step for one state in the U.S., but violence against women is a global problem.
According to the World Health Organization, one in three women is subjected to physical or sexual violence in her lifetime. A recent report says that since the outbreak of COVID-19, one in two women are impacted, in what the UN Women dubbed a “shadow pandemic.” Over 37 percent of women in South Asia, 40 percent of women in Southeast Asia, and 68 percent of women in the Pacific have experienced violence at the hands of their partners.
This violence is not inevitable. Laws and policies can help prevent these types of incidents, and hold perpetrators accountable. Women in countries with domestic violence laws have a 32 percent lower mortality rate, for example.
This is why I am part of a coalition of thousands of women’s rights activists around the world advocating for a global treaty to end violence against women and girls. While there are regional treaties in Latin America, Africa, and Europe, 75 percent of the world’s women lack access to a treaty that specifically addresses violence, including women in the Middle East and Asia. These regional instruments have provided a framework for addressing the problem, but their standards and definitions are inconsistent and offer survivors and victims varying degrees of protection and recourse.
The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), known as the international bill of rights for women, has articles on forced marriage and trafficking, but otherwise, it does not have binding provisions on violence. We only have to see the news on any given day to remind us that our current laws are not adequate. My community is reeling from anti-Asian violence, but we are hardly alone. Global solidarity is needed to confront this rising tide of violence.
In my 35 years in this country, I have never felt as unsafe as I have of late, despite living in a progressive city with a large Asian population. This will only get worse if we do nothing. Laws can lead to systemic and lasting change. I hope that we can enact laws in California and around the world to prevent and condemn violence against women so that we can all live our lives without needing to carry a whistle in our pockets.
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