2. Laws and gender equality in Southeast Asia

Laws are fundamental elements and a pre-requisite to gender equality. This principle is embedded in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as a standalone indicator of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 – SDG Indicator 5.1.1, for which the OECD Development Centre is a co-custodian agency along with UN Women and the World Bank’s Women Business and the Law, and which measures “[w]hether or not legal frameworks are in place to promote, enforce and monitor equality and non-discrimination on the basis of sex”. By setting the environment and establishing a common framework governing people’s lives, laws and regulations profoundly influence individuals’ capacity to accumulate endowments, enjoy returns to such endowments, access rights and resources, and act as free, autonomous agents in society (Hyland, Djankov and Goldberg, 2021[1]; Chiongson et al., 2012[2]).

Any legal provision that limits women’s rights has a direct impact on gender equality, while the benefits of gender-equal laws go beyond women and can generate gains for the entire economy. The persistence of unequal or gender-blind provisions in many areas regulated by the law – such as labour, family, citizenship and so forth – continues to severely undermine women’s empowerment. At the same time, evidence suggests that greater gender equality in the law facilitates cross-country income convergence over time (Sever, 2022[3]).

The chapter provides a detailed overview of the state of legislation governing women’s and girls’ rights in Southeast Asia. Building on the framework of the Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) and its four core dimensions – related to the family, physical integrity, the economic sphere and civil liberties – the chapter analyses how laws continue to hinder gender equality in the region, notably through legal provisions that maintain women in an inferior status compared to men, in both private and public areas. Against this backdrop, the chapter underscores the progress accomplished and the numerous legal reforms and amendments that were enacted between 2019 and 2023 to strengthen and enforce women’s and girls’ rights. Finally, it identifies concrete actions and reforms that Southeast Asian lawmakers must still undertake to accelerate their efforts and ensure that all women of the region enjoy equal legal rights to men.

Situated at the crossroads of East Asia, South Asia and the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia is characterised by a rich diversity of legal systems stemming from a complex history and the coexistence of various ethnic and religious groups. This diversity has played a particular and notable role in the development of plural or dual systems of personal status laws, i.e. the laws and rules that govern matters related to marriage, family, divorce and succession (Box 2.1).

The emergence and process of formation of the personal status laws are strongly intertwined with religious expansion, colonisation and cultural influence from neighbouring Asian countries. Indeed, in many countries of the region, the role of religion has been fundamental in shaping personal status laws that rule women’s and girls’ lives. Moreover, the process of colonisation that took place across Southeast Asia throughout the 16th and 17th centuries and ended in 1984 with the end of the British protectorate over Brunei Darussalam superimposed imported European civil law and common law onto this religious substrate. In many instances, European colonisation also codified and solidified customary family laws, often introducing gender-based discriminatory provisions in the process (Panditaratne, 2007[4]). Finally, the existence of a substantial diaspora from East and South Asia – such as ethnic Chinese in Brunei Darussalam or Singaporeans of Indian ancestry – led to the introduction of specific rules and laws governing family matters in these communities.

In this context, legal frameworks governing personal status matters in Southeast Asia can be grouped into three broad categories (Table 2.1). In the first group of countries (“Unified”), a unified statutory law (civil or common law) governs personal status without any exceptions for religious or ethnic groups. The second group of countries (“Dual”), a unified statutory law (civil or common law) coexists with a legal framework that establishes a religious- or ethnic-based parallel system which may be geographically limited. In the third group of countries (“Multiple”), matters related to family or marriage are solely administered by distinct personal status laws based on religion and/or ethnicity.

The “Unified” group of countries comprises Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (hereafter Lao PDR), Timor-Leste and Viet Nam, where family and marriage matters are governed by a unified system of civil and/or common law, without any exceptions for religious or ethnic groups (OECD Development Centre/OECD, 2023[5]).1 However, informal non-codified customary or religious laws may still exist in certain parts or communities of these countries, even if not formally recognised by the government. For instance, in Lao PDR, customary divorce practices differ substantially across ethnic groups, and informal succession laws and practices often result in widows and daughters inheriting a smaller share of property from their spouses or parents than widowers and sons (ADB, 2022[6]; Lao People's Democratic Republic, 2011[7]). Likewise, although the statutory civil law of Cambodia, Lao PDR and Viet Nam establish the minimum legal age of marriage for girls at 18 years or older, informal laws and customs continue to encourage the early marriage for girls in these three countries (The Asia Foundation, 2019[8]; United Nations, 2018[9]; UNICEF and UNFPA, 2017[10]; Van Der Keur, 2014[11]).

In the “Dual” group of countries, which covers Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, a unified statutory law (civil or common law) also regulates personal status matters. However, for historical or political reasons, exceptions to this statutory law exist. In these countries, the legal framework establishes a parallel system for a certain religion or a specific community, whose jurisdiction may be geographically limited to a certain province or part of the country (such as in Thailand).

  • In Malaysia, common law inherited from the British rule and administered by federal secular civil courts co-exists with Islamic religious law based on the Sharia (also known as Syariah in Malaysia). Religious courts (Syariah courts) have jurisdictions for all personal and family matters of Muslims, and civil courts cannot interfere in matters that fall within the jurisdiction of these Syariah courts (Tew, 2011[12]). The states of Sabah and Sarawak, located on the island of Borneo, also have their own customary laws (or adat)2 which are uncodified but have the force of law in various matters such as land-holding and inheritance (LawTeacher, 2013[13]).

  • In the Philippines, the Family Code and the Civil Code regulate marriage and family affairs (Republic of the Philippines, 1987[14]; Republic of the Philippines, 1949[15]). However, pursuant to Articles 2 and 3 of the Code of Muslim Personal Laws, personal status matters of Muslim people in the Philippines are regulated and governed by the Code of Muslim Personal Laws (Republic of the Philippines, 1977[16]).

  • In Singapore, pursuant to Section 35 of the Administration of Muslim Law Act, marriage, family, divorce and inheritance matters of Muslim individuals are governed by the Administration of Muslim Law Act (Republic of Singapore, 1966[17]). This act introduces specific rules that are different than those contained in the general statutory acts that normally regulate these matters, such as the Women’s Charter, the Guardianship of Infant Act or the Intestate Succession Act (Republic of Singapore, 1961[18]; Republic of Singapore, 1934[19]; Republic of Singapore, 1967[20]).

  • In Thailand, family matters are governed by the Civil and Commercial Code, but the law allows the practice of Sharia as a special legal process outside the national Civil Code for Muslim residents of the four southernmost provinces of the country, near the Malaysian border: Narathiwat, Pattani, Satun Changwat and Yala (Kingdom of Thailand, 1946[21]; United States Department of State, 2022[22]). In these regions and in courts of first instance, when both parties are Muslims, Islamic law pertaining to family and succession takes precedence over the relevant provisions of the Civil and Commercial Code.

Finally, in the “Multiple” group of countries, which includes Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, and Myanmar, multiple religious or customary laws are in force.

  • In Brunei Darussalam, a civil system based on British common law cohabitates with a religious system for Muslims based on Islamic Sharia in most areas, including family, civil and criminal law. Other religious and ethnic groups have their own legislation regarding certain aspects of family matters. For instance, the Marriage Act establishes that marriage is regulated according to the laws and customs of marriage of the different religious and ethnic groups of the country, including the Hindus, Buddhists, and Dayaks (Brunei Darussalam, 1948[23]). In line with this, the Chinese Marriage Act, for example, establishes the rules regulating the marriage for the Chinese community of Brunei Darussalam (Brunei Darussalam, 1955[24]). The Married Women Act also provides that couples where neither of the spouses is Muslim follow their own laws and customs (Brunei Darussalam, 1999[25]). In all other cases related to family matters, the Islamic Family Law Act takes precedence (Brunei Darussalam, 2000[26]).

  • In Indonesia, the Law on Marriage establishes a general framework on marriage and family affairs for all citizens and stipulates that marriage and all matters related to it – such as spousal maintenance, custody of children and divorce – are regulated according to the religious or customary laws of each individual (Republic of Indonesia, 1974[27]). In practice, this translates into individuals of various faiths, or of various ethnic or customary groups, being governed by different legal instruments, with distinct rules for women across these laws. Notably, the Constitution recognises customary law (sistem hukum adat) as long as it is in line with the principles of Indonesia’s rule of law. For instance, three legal systems of inheritance coexist: civil, customary (adat) and Islamic law (Barlinti, 2013[28]). Civil courts have jurisdiction over inheritance disputes based on civil and customary law, while religious courts settle inheritance disputes for Muslims based on Islamic law. Customary law used to govern inheritance matters prior to the Islamic and Dutch colonisation of Indonesia. It continues to apply in local and indigenous communities. Multiple rules and systems exist, with differences in women’s and men’s inheritance rights depending on whether the community is patrilineal or matrilineal.

  • In Myanmar, the Burma Laws Act, which dates back to the British colonisation, provides that succession, inheritance and marriage matters be governed by the relevant religious laws of the countries’ communities – including Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Muslims (Government of Burma, 1898[29]). In practice, since the majority of the population is Buddhist, most women remain governed by Myanmar Customary Law – which corresponds to the personal law of Myanmar’s Buddhists. However, ethnic and religious minorities dispose of their own rules and legal systems regarding family matters. For instance, inheritance rules for Muslims follow the principles of Islamic Sharia, whereby female heirs are entitled to half of the inheritance shares of male heirs (Than, 2015[30]). Ethnic minorities such as the Chins, Kachins or Karens, who remain largely Christian and therefore are not subjected to the Buddhist or Muslim personal status, have their own succession systems (Moe, 2019[31]). For example, inheritance customs and practices of the Chin and Kachin people follow the rules of a patrilineal system, whereas among the Karen and Shan people, inherited property is equally divided between the children (Andersen, 2015[32]).

Beyond women’s rights and status in the law, legal pluralism, notably in the context of legal systems regulating family matters, may also complicate the enforcement of laws. The multiplication of jurisdictions, from state (sometimes at multiple levels) to customary and religious authorities, results in the application of a variety of different rules and laws, which carries a risk of ambiguities, confusions and conflicts between the different jurisdictions and can weaken women’s ability to uphold their rights. In many instances, the risk of legal conflict or incoherence is compounded by the absence of mechanisms able to mediate between the jurisdictions or by the failure of such mechanisms (Chiongson et al., 2012[2]).

Legal data from the fifth edition of the SIGI show the magnitude of legal discrimination women face in matters related to the family. By regulating family and succession matters, personal status laws have a profound impact on women’s legal status in the private sphere. Across the different indicators of the “Discrimination in the family” dimension, the region’s average scores in law variables indicate that levels of legal discrimination are high in household responsibilities and very high in the other three indicators (child marriage, inheritance and divorce). Average levels of legal discrimination are also substantially higher than the global average (Figure 2.1).

In Southeast Asia, these high levels of legal discrimination largely stem from gender-based discriminatory provisions embedded in personal status laws that, within a country, establish different rights between men and women or between different groups of women. These legal restrictions not only matter from a rights’ perspective but also induce important economic costs at the individual, community and society levels.3 Personal status laws in force in the region tend to take their roots in religious or customary practices that contain discriminatory provisions and that hamper women’s and girls’ rights. The codification of these customary or religious rules replicates this discrimination and substantially weakens women’s position in the family. Discriminatory legal provisions embedded in personal status laws tend to cement inequalities by establishing unequal rights between men and women within a culture, religion or ethnic group (World Bank, 2012[34]; Panditaratne, 2007[4]). Moreover, discriminatory legal provisions embedded in personal status laws also establish different rights within a country between women of different groups based on cultural, religious or ethnic affiliation. The co-existence of multiple personal status laws, as well as the potential interaction of customary or religious laws with statutory law, means that women’s legal status can vary substantially across different groups within the same country (World Bank, 2012[34]).

In this context, women’s rights to inheritance remain limited in countries where multiple personal status laws exist or where personal status laws coexist with a unified statutory law. In countries belonging to the “Dual” or “Multiple” groups (see section “Southeast Asia is characterised by the existence of multiple and complex personal status laws”) such as Brunei Darussalam and Malaysia, Muslim personal status laws follow the principles of Islamic Sharia, which establishes discriminatory rules among Muslims regarding inheritance, whereby women are entitled to half of the inheritance share of men (Musawah, 2014[35]; Brunei Darussalam, 1984[36]). In Malaysia, Muslim individuals must obtain a faraid certificate issued by Syariah courts in accordance with the Sharia. It contains the value of the inheritance and the list of heirs with their respective shares (Government of Malaysia, 2023[37]; Government of Malaysia, 2023[38]; Nasrul et al., 2021[39]). Likewise, in Indonesia, the Islamic Law Compilation stipulates that a surviving widower receives one-half of the estate (or one-quarter if there are surviving children), whereas a surviving widow receives one-quarter of the estate (or one-eighth if there are surviving children) (Republic of Indonesia, 2011[40]). At the same time, the customary law, or adat, that still applies in local and indigenous Indonesian communities, and which can be patrilineal or matrilineal, results in different inheritance rules between men and women. Similar provisions are found in the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand within the different acts and personal status laws that govern inheritance rights of their respective Muslim minorities (Republic of the Philippines, 1977[16]; Kingdom of Thailand, 1946[21]; Republic of Singapore, 1966[17]).

Personal status laws tend to establish different rules and requirements for men and women to initiate and finalise divorce. For instance, in Myanmar, laws governing divorce rights are different for Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Muslims, but also among Buddhists, depending on whether a Buddhist woman is married to a Buddhist or a non-Buddhist man (Eshbach and Roberts, 2017[41]). In the former case, divorce rights are regulated by the Myanmar Customary Law, granting equal rights to men and women, whereas in the latter case, divorce rights are governed by the Myanmar Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Law, which grants the Buddhist woman more rights than her spouse to divorce (Htoo, 2014[42]; Cho, 2012[43]).

Likewise, in Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia and Malaysia, where divorce matters are governed by different faith-based legislations, provisions for Muslims follow the principles of Islamic Sharia (Brunei Darussalam, 2000[26]; Republic of Indonesia, 2011[40]; Republic of Indonesia, 1989[44]; Malaysia, 1984[45]). In line with these principles, laws grant a married man the right to divorce his spouse at will, without any restrictions – also known as talaq.4 Conversely, a married woman’s rights to obtain a divorce are more limited, and the authorised grounds are usually precisely specified by the law. The law also often grants a married woman the right to seek divorce by khul’ – the process whereby the woman obtains a divorce in exchange for paying her spouse an agreed financial compensation. Muslim personal status laws also establish a waiting period (iddah) for a divorced Muslim woman before she can remarry.

Discriminatory provisions contained in personal status laws also weaken women’s status and agency in the household, notably by limiting their authority over their children. Some clauses specifically prevent women from being recognised as head of the family, such as Article 31 of Indonesia’s Law No. 1 of 1974 on Marriage (Republic of Indonesia, 1974[27]) or Section 4 of Brunei Darussalam’s Married Woman Act (Cap. 190) of 1999 (Brunei Darussalam, 1999[25]). In addition, numerous personal status laws across the region contain provisions that restrict women’s status in the household, for instance by requiring the man to financially maintain his spouse in exchange for her obedience.

Women’s distinct status within the family is particularly apparent in the rules that regulate the guardianship and custody of children, including after the separation or divorce of the parents. Personal status laws applying to Muslim communities in Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia,5 Malaysia and the Philippines notably dissociate between legal guardianship and custody; they grant guardianship to the father and give priority to the mother for custody, often until the child has reached a certain age (OECD Development Centre/OECD, 2023[5]). Statutory laws in the Philippines and Viet Nam also give the mother priority for child custody (Republic of the Philippines, 1987[14]; Socialist Republic of Viet Nam, 2014[46]). These legal provisions reflect traditional gender roles according to which a woman’s identity and responsibilities are closely tied to her role as a mother.

Both statutory laws and personal status laws in Southeast Asia fail to strictly prohibit child marriage, leaving girls highly vulnerable to early marriage. In four countries6 of the region, the law continues to authorise girls to be married before the age of 18 years (OECD Development Centre/OECD, 2023[5]). In four additional countries,7 the law establishes the minimum legal age of marriage for women at 18 years or older but introduces legal exceptions and authorises minors to get married before the minimum legal age with the consent of either the parents or a judge. Conversely, only three countries – Lao PDR, the Philippines and Viet Nam – fully prohibit girl child marriage, without any exceptions. In 2021, the Philippines notably enacted a landmark reform across all legal systems, both the statutory system and the system applying to the Muslim minority, which sets the minimum legal age of marriage at 18 years for all women and men, without any exceptions, and imposes harsh legal penalties for the violation of the law (Republic of the Philippines, 2021[47]).

Moreover, in certain countries of the region, the co-existence of multiple personal status laws translates into different minimum legal ages of marriage depending on women’s cultural, religious or ethnic affiliation. This is notably the case in four Southeast Asian countries (OECD Development Centre/OECD, 2023[5]).8 For instance, in Brunei Darussalam, the law regulating marriages celebrated according to the Chinese custom authorises the marriage of any woman aged at least 15 years, whereas the minimum legal age of marriage for Muslim women is 16 years (Brunei Darussalam, 2000[26]; Brunei Darussalam, 1955[24]).

Informal customary laws may also encourage the marriage of girls at a young age, even in countries where the practice is theoretically fully prohibited by the law. In Viet Nam, child marriage remains a common and traditional practice among ethnic minority communities (UNICEF and UNFPA, 2017[10]). Likewise, in Lao PDR, child marriage is reported as prevalent among some ethnic groups, such as the Mon-Khmer and Hmong, and in economically vulnerable households. In particular, the customary practice of “bride price” may create incentives to marry girls at an early age. Customary – and often arranged – marriages take place without a formal registration, leaving young women without any form of legal protection (The Asia Foundation, 2019[8]).

Southeast Asia’s laws governing women’s rights in the workplace are generally robust and guarantee equal rights between men and women. Most countries of the region have eliminated all legal provisions that prevented women from entering certain sectors, working in certain professions or working during night hours the same way as men.9

However, some gaps persist. Beyond labour laws that regulate women’s and men’s rights in the workplace, laws governing family relationships may restrict women’s ability to freely choose their professions. For instance, personal status laws can contain specific provisions whereby a woman needs the consent of her spouse to exercise a profession or start a business. In the Philippines, for example, the Code of Muslim Personal Laws establishes such provisions for married Muslim women. All Southeast Asian countries, with the exception of Brunei Darussalam and Myanmar, also prohibit sexual harassment specifically in the workplace, and all of them, except for Brunei Darussalam and Timor-Leste, criminalise it. Yet, four countries10 of the region do not include civil remedies, thus preventing women from seeking appropriate compensation when confronted with this form of violence that can severely affect their ability to work and to be economically empowered (OECD Development Centre/OECD, 2023[5]).

The legislation is more contrasted regarding provisions that mandate equal remuneration between women and men. All Southeast Asian countries have ratified the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 100 stipulating equal pay for work of equal value (ILO, 1951[48]). The concept goes beyond ensuring that two workers with the same job are paid the same wage. It aims at ensuring that two workers employed in different sectors of the economy but using the same skills and generating the same value for the economy receive equal compensation. This principle is crucial to overcome systemic pay inequalities across sectors, especially in contexts of horizontal segregation where professions or sectors are traditionally identified as more suitable for women or men, often leading to women’s economic contribution being undervalued. In Southeast Asia, six countries11 mandate, by law, equal remuneration for work of equal value; two countries12 mandate equal remuneration for equal work but not for work of equal value; and three countries13 do not foresee any legal provision on the matter (OECD Development Centre/OECD, 2023[5]).

The region’s countries exhibit extremely large differences between maternity and paternity leave. All Southeast Asian countries mandate paid maternity leave and 7 countries14 out of 11 comply with the minimum maternity leave period of 14 weeks recommended by the ILO (ILO, 2022[49]). However, just 5 of them mandate the full payment of benefits for all 14 weeks (Figure 2.2). Yet, evidence from Viet Nam underscores that the extension of the duration of maternity leave in 2012 did not increase the gender employment gap, but rather it helped narrowing the gender gap in the formal sector for women of reproductive age (Le and Pham, 2021[50]). Moreover, in contrast with maternity leave, four countries15 do not mandate any paid paternity or parental leave available to fathers, and in countries that do, the legislation establishes leave periods for fathers that are significantly shorter than for mothers. In Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Timor-Leste and Viet Nam, the duration of the paid paternity leave mandated by law is lower than or equal to 7 days, whereas it reaches 15 days in Myanmar and 2 weeks in Singapore.

These stark differences between the duration of maternity and paternity leave primarily reflect views on women’s and men’s traditional roles in the family according to which women are the primary child carers and men the breadwinners (see Chapter 3 on social norms). In turn, differences in treatment between mothers and fathers as upheld by the law further encourage a gender-based division of roles within the household. As a result, even when paid paternity leave exists, fathers can be reluctant to use it for fear of being stigmatised and not complying with the dominant societal model (Pham, Ngo and Pham, 2023[51]; Baird, Hill and Gulesserian, 2019[52]; Hill, 2019[53]). Yet, evidence shows that granting fathers well-paid, individual, earmarked and non-transferable paternity leave has an important impact on shifting gender roles (Kvande and Brandth, 2019[54]). Parental leave policies alone are not sufficient to induce lasting change and challenge the status quo. They must be complemented with programmes that support a more gender-equal distribution of care responsibilities, and efforts led by the private sector to ensure compliance with existing regulations, provide leave schemes that exceed with the minimum standards established by the law, and encourage men to take paternity and parental leaves.

The effectiveness of labour and social protection laws is constrained by high rates of informal employment, which constitutes 70% of total employment in Southeast Asia (ILO, 2023[55]). Existing legislation on labour rights and social protection predominantly applies to formal sector employees, often leaving informal or own-account workers without access to essential provisions such as sick leaves, maternity and paternity benefits, and pensions. Recognising the need to extend social protection to informal workers, several countries in the region have taken steps to address this issue. For instance, in the Philippines, both informal and formal workers are covered by the social protection system. In Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand, the law grants informal workers the possibility to voluntarily contribute to social insurance schemes (ILO, 2023[56]; ILO, 2023[57]; ISSA, 2023[58]). Yet, achieving effective coverage for informal workers, including women, remains a crucial policy challenge (see Chapter 4 on the care economy).

Citizenship laws are fundamental to avoid statelessness and to guarantee socio-economic and political rights such as access to social protection and education, the rights to work and to vote, and so forth. An individual who lacks legal recognition as a national or citizen of a country is considered stateless, which has drastic consequences on his/her ability to enjoy such rights. Most citizenship laws of Southeast Asian countries contain provisions that do not grant women and men equal rights – in particular, to acquire or retain citizenship after marriage or to confer it to their own children.

In 5 Southeast Asian countries16 out of 11, citizenship laws do not grant women and men the same rights to confer citizenship to their spouses. In certain countries, legal provisions establish different rules for women and men, often only granting the right to confer nationality by marriage to men. For instance, in Brunei Darussalam, the Nationality Act establishes that a foreign woman can acquire Bruneian citizenship by marrying a Bruneian national, but the reverse is not true for a foreign man marrying a Bruneian national (Brunei Darussalam, 1962[59]). In other countries, the law establishes different requirements for men and women. For instance, the Constitution of Singapore establishes specific conditions under which a married man can confer Singaporean citizenship to his spouse – namely two years of residence in Singapore, the intention of residing permanently Singapore and being of good faith – while the same provision does not exist for a Singaporean woman who wishes to transmit her citizenship to her spouse (Republic of Singapore, 1965[60]). In the Philippines, a foreign man married to a Filipino woman can apply for Filipino nationality after five years of continuous residence in the country, instead of the ten years usually required. However, this condition is not specified for a foreign woman married to a Filipino man who wishes to acquire Filipino citizenship (Republic of the Philippines, 1939[61]).

Legal provisions can also increase the risk of statelessness in cases of cross-border marriages. In Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia and Singapore, married women and men do not have the same rights to retain their original citizenship or the one they acquire. For instance, in Malaysia, the law stipulates that a woman who previously acquired Malaysian citizenship by virtue of marriage and acquires another citizenship also by virtue of marriage loses her Malaysian citizenship – while the same clause does not exist for men (Malaysia, 1957[62]). Similarly, in Singapore, a woman who has acquired Singaporean citizenship by virtue of marriage can lose it if the marriage is dissolved – with no such provision existing for men (Republic of Singapore, 1965[60]). These legal provisions can also have adverse effects on countries without such discriminatory laws. In various East and Southeast Asian countries, cases have been reported of cross-border marriages involving Vietnamese brides who had to renounce their birth citizenship to request the nationality of their foreign spouses, but subsequently failed to obtain a new nationality and ended up stateless. Viet Nam successfully addressed the issue by reforming its legislation to ease the reacquisition of Vietnamese citizenship by these stateless women; however, the underlying factor persist – the existence of discriminatory legislations in other countries (Sperfeldt, 2021[63]; Kneebone, York and Ariyawansa, 2019[64]).

These types of provisions can also exacerbate women’s exposure to gender-based violence. When their nationality is tied to an abusive spouse, women face greater difficulty in escaping the violent relationship (Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights, 2020[65]).

At the same time, nearly all countries grant women and men the same rights to confer their nationality to their children, but some exceptions persist. In Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia and Malaysia, laws establish distinct rights to nationality by birth for married or unmarried women and men. In all three countries, depending on the marital status of the parents, the law stipulates that a child becomes a citizen of the country only if the father holds the citizenship. In these cases, the mother is unable to confer her citizenship to her child. Such a legal provision can have dramatic consequences on children born out of mixed marriages, outside the territory of their state or out of wedlock (Sperfeldt, 2021[63]). Moreover, girls without a nationality face an increased risk of child marriage, as some families may decide to seek legal status for their daughters and themselves through marriage (Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights, 2020[65]).

Discrimination embedded in Southeast Asia’s laws stems from multiple reasons and places certain groups of people more at risk than others. A complex set of factors can explain the persistence of discriminatory legal provisions in many legislative frameworks of Southeast Asian countries, including colonial rule, discrimination towards certain minorities and weak registration systems (Sperfeldt, 2021[63]). In the aftermath of decolonisation, many nascent governments of the region focused on a state- and nation-building process characterised by models of national integration and citizenship regimes structured around ethnic lines (Miller, 2011[66]). This process resulted in the enactment of citizenship laws which left many people statelessness. Such cases of discrimination based on ethnic differences notably affected minorities such as the Rohingya in Myanmar and the Hill Tribes in Thailand (Sperfeldt, 2021[63]). In the context of Southeast Asia, which is one of the most ethnically diverse regions of the world, being a woman from an ethnic minority is therefore a double challenge in terms of citizenship rights, as she faces both gender- and ethnic-based discriminatory legal provisions in the citizenship legislation (Petcharamesree, 2023[67]).

Policy and legal frameworks are key to prevent and end violence against women. All Southeast Asian countries, except for Brunei Darussalam, have a national action plan or policy focusing on preventing and ending violence against women. For instance, in 2021, the Lao PDR enacted its Second National Plan of Action on Violence against Women and Violence against Children (2021-25), and in 2022, Viet Nam launched its National Programme on Domestic Violence Prevention and Control until 2025 (Socialist Republic of Viet Nam, 2022[68]; Lao People's Democratic Republic, 2021[69]). Despite these positive developments, no country in the region has a legal framework that comprehensively protects girls and women from all forms of violence. Although laws alone cannot end and prevent violence against women, they create an indispensable framework for justice. When thoroughly enforced, legislation can effectively contribute to ending perpetrators’ impunity and reducing the social acceptance of violence.

Indonesia, Malaysia and Viet Nam have the most comprehensive legal frameworks on violence against women, but some shortcomings persist. For instance, in Indonesia, rape is criminalised, but the definition is not based on the lack of consent (Article 285 of the Penal Code, as amended) (Republic of Indonesia, 1915[70]). Integrating freely given consent into the legislation is essential to fully protect any person from unwanted sexual relations and to guarantee a person’s right to bodily integrity and sexual autonomy (OECD, 2023[71]).

Conversely, women and girls are least protected by the legislation in Brunei Darussalam, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand. In Brunei Darussalam and Myanmar, specific forms of violence such as domestic violence, marital rape and sexual harassment are not all criminalised. The case is different for the Philippines and Thailand, where laws prohibit these forms of violence but either introduce reduced penalties in the case of so called “honour crimes” or allow rapists to marry the victim/survivor under specific circumstances (OECD Development Centre/OECD, 2023[5]).

Legislation also insufficiently protects girls from female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM/C) – a specific and extreme form of gender-based violence. FGM/C is practiced in some parts of Southeast Asia, but no country in the region specifically prohibits it. Evidence shows that FGM/C is practiced primarily among Muslim communities in Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. In Indonesia, the only country where nationally representative data are available, it is estimated that almost half (49%) of all girls aged up to 11 years have experienced this harmful practice (Equality Now, End FGM European Network and US End FGM/C Network, 2020[72]). In this context, Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country where FGM/C can be prosecuted under narrow grounds.17 In all other countries of the region – except for Myanmar and Singapore – FGM/C can be prosecuted under broad grounds such as acts of bodily harm, hurt or injury.18 However, this is not sufficient to adequately protect girls’ rights and well-being.

Laws that specifically prohibit FMG/C and hold its practitioners accountable are required, and not only in countries where FMG/C is traditionally being practiced. Evidence shows that FGM/C does not stop at country borders, and laws should account for so-called “cross-border” FGM/C, i.e. when girls are taken abroad to be cut in places where the practice is not criminalised or where law enforcement is limited (OECD, 2023[71]).

Laws can restrict or promote women’s bodily and reproductive autonomy, and legal frameworks regulating girls’ and women’s access to safe abortion are one crucial example. Evidence shows that the share of unsafe abortions is higher in countries with restrictive abortion laws (Singh et al., 2018[73]). In this context, the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) calls upon countries to legally guarantee women’s access to abortion when the pregnant women’s life or health is at risk and in cases of rape, incest and severe foetal impairment (CEDAW, 2022[74]). In Southeast Asia, only 4 countries out of 11 provide women all these legal guarantees, namely Cambodia, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam. Conversely, the Philippines prohibits abortion under any circumstances, and in Brunei Darussalam, Myanmar and Timor-Leste, abortion is only permitted when necessary to save the pregnant women’s life.

Beyond access to safe and legal abortion, laws can also regulate other aspects of sexual and reproductive rights. Adolescents, for instance, can face challenges in accessing adequate services and treatment in the presence of third-party consent laws (OECD, 2023[75]).

Between 2019 and 2023, Southeast Asian countries implemented 33 legal or regulatory reforms related to gender equality. Among these reforms, 26 (79%) were assessed as contributing to greater gender equality (OECD Development Centre/OECD, 2023[5]). Conversely, 2 reforms were assessed as gender unequal as they further limit women’s rights and opportunities, and 6 of them were assessed as neutral from a gender perspective (see Annex B).19

The most common issue tackled by legal reforms was the prevention of violence against women, with 13 legal or regulatory reforms in this area between 2019 and 2023. For instance, Indonesia criminalised sexual violence in 2022 (Republic of Indonesia, 2022[76]). Similarly, in 2019, the Philippines drastically tightened its legislation on sexual harassment while including a progressive definition of gender in the law, which, among others, recognises the status of transgender people (Republic of the Philippines, 2019[77]).20

Governments also enacted new laws and amendments in other areas of women’s and girls’ lives, such as:

  • Child marriage: In 2019, Indonesia raised the legal age of marriage from 16 to 19 years, although legal exceptions are still allowed with the agreement of a judge (Republic of Indonesia, 2019[78]). In 2021, the Philippines enacted a landmark reform across all legal systems, both the statutory system and the system applying to the Muslim minority, which sets the minimum legal age of marriage at 18 years for all women and men, without any exceptions, and imposes harsh legal penalties for the violation of the law (Republic of the Philippines, 2021[47]).

  • Labour rights: In 2019, the Philippines increased the length of paid maternity leave from 60 days to 105 days (Republic of the Philippines, 2019[79]). In 2022, the country further provided additional benefits to single parents (Republic of the Philippines, 2021[80]). In 2019, Thailand amended its labour legislation: New provisions prohibit sex-based discrimination in the workplace, mandate equal pay for work of equal value, outline penalties for companies or institutions that discriminate against women, and mandate paid maternity leave while protecting women’s employment security while they are on leave (Kingdom of Thailand, 2019[81]). In 2019, Viet Nam enacted a new Labour Code comprising the recognition of sexual harassment in the workplace as grounds for dismissal (Socialist Republic of Viet Nam, 2019[82]). A subsequent decree in 2020 expanded the definition of sexual harassment to include online harassment and added entitlements to menstrual leave and to periodic breaks for breastfeeding mothers (Socialist Republic of Viet Nam, 2020[83]). The decree also requires companies to report on how much they pay employees.

A multitude of action plans and national policy frameworks on gender equality at various levels support the legislative framework of the region. In Southeast Asia, all countries except for Brunei Darussalam have such national action plans or policy frameworks in place.21 Between 2019 and 2023, 25 national action plans and policy frameworks related to certain gender issues were adopted in the region.

However, despite the existence of these national action plans, the legislative action towards the commitments they outline is not as consistent. For instance, Cambodia has several sector-based action plans22 and an overarching national Five-Year Strategic Plan for Strengthening Gender Mainstreaming and Women’s Empowerment 2019-2023. One of its objectives it to guide the development and implementation of the first National Policy on Gender Equality (Kingdom of Cambodia, 2019[84]). Yet, although this policy was supposed to be passed into law by 2020, it is still forthcoming. In addition to gaps in the realisation of commitments set forth by national strategies, weak law enforcement represents another channel that can lead to discrepancies between women’s and men’s de facto and de jure rights.

Beyond laws and policies, even in countries where positive legal reforms have taken place, discriminatory informal and customary laws hamper the full implementation of gender equitable statutory provisions. For instance, in Lao PDR, the 2019 Law on Gender Equality established equal inheritance rights between men and women (Lao People's Democratic Republic, 2019[85]). Yet, in 2022, reports underscored that customary practices often prevail over the law regarding land and property inheritance, resulting in widows and daughters inheriting smaller shares of property than widowers and sons (ADB, 2022[6]).

Data from the fifth edition of the SIGI show that, despite some progress to eradicate gender-based discrimination in legal frameworks, much remains to be done in Southeast Asia. In close consultation with legal experts and women’s rights organisations, Southeast Asian lawmakers must undertake several concrete actions and reforms to ensure that all women in the region enjoy the same legal rights as men.

Most personal status laws (PSL) in Southeast Asia are codified and often contain discriminatory provisions that establish unequal rights between men and women. There are various approaches to reform discriminatory PSLs:

  • A uniform civil code: Enacting a uniform civil code would enable gender-equal provisions for all, allowing countries to immediately eradicate discriminatory provisions and establishing the same rights for the entire population. However, this could prove challenging in the Southeast Asian context where this approach could be perceived as a devaluation of diversity and cultural identity. There is also a risk that a uniform civil code would be largely informed by the values and customs of the majority ethnic/religious group or be perceived as such by the minority groups.

  • Judicial reform: In countries whose legal tradition is rooted in common law, courts may have the liberty required to interpret the law in a manner favourable to women and gender equality. However, this carries substantial legal risks. In the worst-case scenario, a court may decide to rule against gender equality setting a precedent that applies to all other cases. Alternatively, a court may rule in favour of gender equality but only on a specific detail that prevents from establishing a more general and robust legal precedent. Judges may also focus on the specific circumstances of one case rather than on the potential impacts their decisions would have on the wider community. A pro-women rights reform could also create opposition by concerned communities and their leaders, possibly resulting in additional restrictions on women’s rights (Panditaratne, 2007[4]).

  • Statutory reform: The government and legislators could make legislative amendments to the discriminatory provisions in PSLs. This is a complicated process that could be politically challenging, as it could trigger opposition from concerned ethnic or religious minorities and their respective leaders. Nevertheless, reforming existing PSLs appears to be the most promising approach for Southeast Asian countries, because it allows recognition of the cultural and religious identities of the various communities (Panditaratne, 2007[4]). In the process, it is essential to establish strong partnerships and feedback loops between legislators and traditional, religious and ethnic leaders. To gain support for needed reforms, the following strategies could be considered:

    • A first step is to undertake research on the origins of discriminatory provisions to understand whether they are embedded in customs or were introduced during periods of colonisation. Highlighting how customary and religious laws have historically valued women can help gain communities’ support and can pave the way for future change.

    • Combining women’s and minority rights movements can help recognise women as active contributors to political and public decision-making processes, which will eventually aid in overcoming patriarchal norms that currently undermine their representation. Affirmative action, such as quotas for minority groups in political bodies at all levels, can amplify women’s voices and contribute to reforming PSLs.

In 2021, the Philippines’ Act No. 11596 came into force, prohibiting child marriage effectively at national level and imposing penalties for those violating the law. Prior to the reform, the minimum legal age of marriage was already set at 18 years with the exception for Muslims. The new law eliminates certain provisions contained in the Code of Muslim Personal Laws to ensure that all children are equally protected by existing legal frameworks. Despite several consultation processes with local organisations and legislators, the reform was met with fierce resistance from local religious leaders. The success of Act No. 11596 will thus depend on law enforcement alongside a shift in social norms and attitudes. The newly enacted law notably establishes that the Department of Education shall develop a sexual education curriculum with culturally sensitive modules on the impacts of child marriage (Center for Reproductive Rights, 2022[86]; Republic of the Philippines, 2021[47]).

Governments and policy makers should closely collaborate with women’s rights groups to revise and update legal frameworks governing violence against women to ensure that they comprehensively protect girls’ and women’s rights without any exceptions. Codified provisions in legal and policy frameworks for the investigation, prosecution and punishment of these crimes, along with protection and support services for victims/survivors are further required. In line with international legal frameworks, governments should also reform laws to enshrine sexual and reproductive rights. This includes:

  • Recognising and criminalising all forms of domestic violence and intimate partner violence: physical, sexual, psychological/emotional and economic abuse. This also requires criminalising rape on the basis of lack of freely given consent and explicitly extending its definition to marital rape.

  • Criminalising sexual harassment and updating the laws to ensure they account for new challenges and technologies, i.e. sexual harassment should be specifically prohibited in the workplace, in educational institutions, in public spaces as well as online.

In 2022, Malaysia enacted the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act, which extends the definition of sexual harassment to all areas of life: in school, public spaces, online, etc. Previously, sexual harassment was prohibited only in the workplace through the Employment Act. Moreover, the new law establishes a dedicated tribunal to deal with any case of sexual harassment (Malaysia, 2022[87]).

  • Eliminating legal loopholes, such as reduced penalties in the case of “honour crimes” or the possibility for a rapist to marry the victim/survivor in order to escape legal punishment.

  • Tackling harmful practices by (i) setting the minimum legal age of marriage at 18 years or over, for both women and men without any exceptions, and (ii) enacting laws that explicitly criminalise FGM/C and hold practitioners accountable, even if FGM/C is not traditionally practised or is not an issue of concern, as the practice does not stop at country borders.

  • Guaranteeing women’s access to a safe and legal abortion under essential circumstances, i.e. to save the life or health of the pregnant woman and in cases of rape, incest and severe foetal impairment, as recommended by the CEDAW.

  • Governments should ensure that the workplace is a secure environment for women, free from sexual harassment, and a place where women can benefit from the same career opportunities as men. This includes, among others, ensuring the principle of equal remuneration for work of equal value, and ensuring that parents have flexible working conditions and are able to welcome maternity and paternity on an equal basis, without impacting their work and employment security. In particular, the length of maternity leave should comply with the ILO’s recommended 14 weeks, and countries should consider granting paid paternity leave, which is almost non-existent in the region.

In 2019, Thailand amended the Labour Protection Act. The new Article 53 enshrines the principles of equal pay for work of equal value. More precisely, it stipulates that male and female employees who perform work of the same type, quality and quantity or work of equal value must receive equal compensation. This includes equality in wages, overtime payments and payments for work performed on holidays (Kingdom of Thailand, 2019[81]).

In 2019, the Philippines enacted Act No. 11210, which extends the duration of paid maternity leave from 60 to 105 days, with an additional 15 days for single parents (Republic of the Philippines, 2019[79]). In addition, Act No. 8187 grants fathers 7 days of paid paternity leave, and Act No. 11861, adopted in 2021, provides for 7 days of paid parental leave every year for single parents (Republic of the Philippines, 1996[88]; Republic of the Philippines, 2021[80]).

  • Governments should strengthen their efforts to promote women’s political participation at all levels, which remains low in the region. Gender quotas at national and local levels and other parity measures prove to be effective, especially when legislation provides for sanctions in case of non-compliance. Governments should develop these instruments in collaboration with political parties, civil society groups and other key actors and complement them with adequate training programmes and mentoring for women candidates and aspiring candidates in political elections.

In Indonesia, Article 245 of Law No. 7 of 2017 on General Elections stipulates that the list of candidates should include at least 30% of women’s representation (Republic of Indonesia, 2017[89]).

In 2017, Timor-Leste introduced quotas for village elections, which led to a substantial increase of the number of elected women at the local level (Welsh, 2021[90]).

  • Governments should reform their laws to ensure that both women and men can confer their nationality to their spouses and children on an equal basis, as well as retain their own nationality. Women and girls from ethnic minorities, who are at the greatest risk of statelessness, must receive particular attention.

Thailand has taken important steps to reform its nationality laws to facilitate the acquisition of citizenship. Since 2008, over 100 000 people have become Thai nationals (Norapoompipat, 2022[91]).

In 2017, in the context of the #IBelong campaign, the Philippines launched a National Action Plan to End Statelessness which aims at ensuring that, by 2024, no child is born stateless. The strategic objectives of the plan include the improvement of birth registration, the promotion of legal reform and its implementation (UNHCR Philippines, 2021[92]; Republic of the Philippines, 2017[93]).

In 2023, Malaysia established a Cabinet Committee and a Technical Committee for the amendments of the Federal Constitution regarding citizenship matters. The Cabinet Committee and the Technical Committee conducted a detailed study on the proposed amendments of the Federal Constitution with regard to citizenship laws, which included consultations with stakeholders, comparisons with other nations’ laws and debates during meetings of the committees. The study resulted in the formulation of eight proposed amendments to Part III of the Federal Constitution as well as the First Schedule and Second Schedule of the Federal Constitution, which cover the issue of citizenship for children born abroad to women who are Malaysian citizens. The Cabinet Committee and Technical Committee will present a final report of the study and proposed amendments of the citizenship laws to the Malaysia Conference of Rulers for approval, before sending it to the Parliament (United Nations, 2023[94]).


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← 1. In Cambodia, Lao PDR and Timor-Leste, most marriage and family affairs are governed by these countries’ respective civil codes, whereas in Viet Nam they are governed by the Marriage and Family Law.

← 2. Customary laws in Malaysia (also known as adat in Malay) comprise four main categories: Adat Pepatih, Adat Temenggong, Dusun customary laws and Iban customary laws. Adat Pepatih is limited to the state of Negeri Sembilan in West Malaysia. Adat Temenggong is based on Islamic principles and is applicable to all states in West Malaysia, except Negeri Sembilan. Dusun and Iban customary laws are only applicable to the respective states of Sabah and Sarawak in East Malaysia (LawTeacher, 2013[13]).

← 3. Laws that limit or fail to protect women’s rights can induce negative economic consequences not only for women themselves but also for society as a whole. For instance, laws that require women to obey their husbands and restrict their mobility can limit their ability to make independent decision about their economic participation, which hampers economic growth and generate income losses through lost opportunities (Ferrant and Kolev, 2016[101]).

← 4. In Malaysia, talaq must be pronounced inside the court and with the permission of the court. Failure to do so may be liable to sanctions by the court.

← 5. In Indonesia, this is only the case for custody and not for guardianship. Under the general framework established by the Law on Marriage, Article 47 stipulates that both parents are the child’s legal guardians (Republic of Indonesia, 1974[27]). Regarding custody, Article 156 of the Islamic Law Compilation stipulates that a child under the age of 12 years remains in the custody of the mother following a divorce (Republic of Indonesia, 2011[40]).

← 6. Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, Thailand and Timor-Leste.

← 7. Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar and Singapore.

← 8. Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand.

← 9. Exceptions include (i) Myanmar, where the Factories Act mandates that certain operations can only be carried out by a specially trained adult male worker and prohibits the employment of women in certain types of factories (Republic of the Union of Myanmar, 1951[97]); and (ii) Thailand, where the Labour Protection Act does not allow women to work in mining or in underground construction, among others (Kingdom of Thailand, 1998[96]). In Malaysia, in 2022, the Employment (Amendment) Act repealed the provisions that previously prohibited the employment of women in any underground work, as well as in industrial and agricultural activities if carried out during the night (Malaysia, 2022[99]; Malaysia, 1955[98]).

← 10. Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Myanmar and Timor-Leste.

← 11. Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Timor-Leste and Viet Nam.

← 12. Lao PDR and Myanmar.

← 13. Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia and Singapore.

← 14. Lao PDR (105 days), Malaysia (98 days), Myanmar (14 weeks), the Philippines (105 days), Singapore (16 weeks) and Viet Nam (6 months).

← 15. Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Lao PDR and Thailand.

← 16. Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.

← 17. Countries are assessed as criminalising FGM/C on narrow grounds when the legal framework specifically criminalises the following acts: female genital mutilation, permanent altering / removal of external genital, female circumcision, excision, infibulation and/or genital mutilation.

← 18. Countries are assessed as criminalising FGM/C on broad grounds when the legal framework criminalises the following acts: mutilation, harming of a person’s organs, serious bodily injury and bodily injury / hurt / assault.

← 19. One reform was assessed as both positive and negative as it contained provisions contributing to greater gender equality and others that further limited women’s rights and opportunities.

← 20. Section 3 of the Safe Space Act (Republic Act No. 11313), enacted in 2019, stipulates that “[g]ender refers to a set of socially ascribed characteristics, norms, roles, attitudes, values and expectations identifying the social behavior of men and women, and the relations between them” and that “[g]ender identity and/or expression refers to the personal sense of identity as characterized, among others, by manner of clothing, inclinations, and behavior in relation to masculine or feminine conventions. A person may have a male or female identity with physiological characteristics of the opposite sex in which case this person is considered transgender” (Republic of the Philippines, 2019[77]).

← 21. Although currently Brunei Darussalam does not have any plan in force, the government announced its intention to release its first action plan on women, at the European Union-Brunei Seminar on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment held in March 2023. According to the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports, the plan will include the promotion of women’s rights, healthcare, economic empowerment, employment and work-life balance (Bandial, 2023[100]).

← 22. Cambodia sector-based action plans include the National Action Plan to Prevent Violence Against Women 2019-2023, the Policy and Strategic Plan on Gender Mainstreaming in Health 2020-2024, and the Gender Mainstreaming Plan for Education 2021-2025.

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