Notes from Taiwan: Beyond the Sorrow, There is Hope for Change


*Note: In the evening of Dec. 16, 2012, a 23-year-old young lady was brutally raped, beaten and thrown out of a moving bus by six men in Delhi. Suffering from traumatic internal injuries and brain damage, the victim underwent multiple organ transplants at Safdarjung Hospital, Delhi and was later airlifted to Singapore for further medical treatment. After fighting for her life for 13 days, the victim passed away on Dec. 29.

This brutal incident has sparked intense outrage across India. Tens of thousands of demonstrators have been gathering on the streets demanding justice for the victim as well as better security for women. In Madhya Pradesh, where I’m currently staying, various civil society organizations, including BGVS, have also staged a series of public demonstrations against Delhi gang-rape and further organized a convention to contribute suggestions for the special committee formed by Indian government to propose adequate amendments to existing laws on crimes against women. 

Demonstrations against Delhi gang-rape in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh

Demonstrations against Delhi gang-rape in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh [Photo: 鄭欣娓]

The impressive social mobilization over violence against women in wake of the Delhi incident has reminded me of Taiwan’s experience in fighting for women’s rights following Mrs. Peng Wan-Ru’s murder about 15 years ago. This article thus attempts to review the legal and social reform towards gender equality in Taiwan after Peng’s murder, with a hope that similar transformation would happen in India as well.

The brutal Delhi gang-rape case of a 23-year-old paramedical student has evoked pervasive anger, criticism and condemnation across India. Massive public protests have taken place not only in Delhi but all over the country, demanding justice for the victim as well as better security for women. Like in any other country, violence against women – rape, sexual assault/harassment, molestation, etc. – is not a new thing in India. Yet this is perhaps the very first time that India has witnessed such large-scale protests in wake of a rape case. It is also the first time that apart from activists and organizations that have been working on gender issues, such staggering numbers of people – most of them students and youths – have chosen to stand up and raise their voices over sexual violence against women.

Strong public pressure has also forced the Government of India to respond, although the responses are not enough. Fast track courts have been inaugurated to try cases of sexual offence meted out against women. A special task force has been set up under the Ministry of Home Affairs to monitor women’s safety in the national capital, while two other committees have been appointed to look into the incidents of rape and suggest adequate amendments to existing laws on violence against women. Now there is a widely shared hope that this particular Delhi incident could be a turning point for women’s rights in India, leading to legal/institutional reform on related issues and ultimately contributing towards comprehensive social change.

Taiwan had gone through similar experience about 15 years ago. In 1996, the rape and murder of a prominent feminist activist sparked widespread public outrage in Taiwan, and later brought about significant changes contributing towards the progress in women’s rights.

The Murder of Peng Wan-Ru: From A Heartbreaking Loss to An Inspiration for Change

Mrs. Peng Wan-Ru

Mrs. Peng Wan-Ru

Towards the end of 1996, Mrs. Peng Wan-Ru (彭婉如), a long-time activist, then the Director of the Women’s affair of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who spent her whole live fighting for better future for women in Taiwan, was reported missing in Kaohsiung. She was last seen getting on a taxi the night before DPP’s national convention which she was supposed to attend, in the convention her proposal of 25% reservation for women was scheduled to be discussed. Three days later, she was found barbarically raped and murdered outside an abandoned warehouse, with more than 30 stab wounds on her body.

15 years have passed, and her murderer still remains at large.

It is not that women were not raped and murdered in Taiwan before her, but as history shows us, often a single incident becomes a representative case and shakes the society from its deep slumber. Peng’s death sent shock waves across the entire Taiwanese society. It not only underscored the rapidly worsening situation of public security in Taiwan at the time, but also cruelly brought forth the fact widely ignored that women are particularly vulnerable to violent crimes in patriarchal society. How ironic it was – even an outspoken and prominent personality like Peng was forced to stand face to face in death with the bloody reality that, being a woman, you don’t even have the right to walk safely at nights!

With deep sorrow and anger, several women’s organizations staged late night rally in memory of Peng. Tens of thousands of demonstrators marched in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan from evening till morning, calling for better security for women in the country. Peng’s death to a great extent impelled the civil society, especially various women’s organizations and activists, to work together demanding the Government to take serious action to safeguard and enhance women’s rights. Facing enormous public pressure, the Government of Taiwan speedily passed the Sexual Assault Crime Prevention Act in 1997, which had been pending in the parliament since 1994. Sexual Assault Crime Prevention Act made it an obligatory requirement for the Government to create proper prevention mechanisms at all levels to carry out “Educational and Preventive Programs on Sexual Assault”, set up and operate 24-hours Hotline care service. The Act also made it mandatory for the Government to provide safe and secure accommodation, professional counseling and legal assistance to the victims of sexual assault. Two years later, the section on sexual offenses of the Criminal Law was amended. The revised law considers sexual offenses as serious criminal offense  and recognizes that men could be victims of sexual violence as well. Moreover, sexual assault in marital relationships has also been taken into account.

Reclaiming the Nights: In memory of Peng Wan-Ru [Photo: Peng Wan-Ru Foundation]

Reclaiming the Nights: In memory of Peng Wan-Ru [Photo: 彭婉如基金會]

In the following 10 years after the widespread outrage over Peng’s death, a series of new laws on gender equality were enacted. The Domestic Violence Prevention Act in 1998, the Gender Equality in Employment Law in 2001, the Gender Equality Education Act in 2004, and the Sexual Harassment Prevention Act in 2005 have constituted a basic legal framework guaranteeing women’s fundamental rights in Taiwan. Besides, some essential amendments to the Civil Code were made to ensure equal rights and opportunities for women and men.

At the same time, specific institutional mechanisms were formed at both central and local levels to promote gender equality. While the Committee for Education on Gender Equality and the Committee against Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse were set up in 1997 and 1999, the Committee for the Promotion of Women’s Rights was established in 1997 and later restructured into the Department of Gender, the first national-level department in charge of gender equality in Taiwan, in 2012. At the local level, every city/county government in Taiwan had formed similar body to look into women’s issues by the end of 2004.

Among the above-mentioned mechanisms, the Committee for the Promotion of Women’s Rights plays a critical leading role in improving women’s empowerment and gender equality in Taiwan. As a unique bilateral platform for political advocacy, the Committee invites representatives of women’s groups and experts on gender issues to take part in the government decision-making process. Through this participatory approach to democratic governance, women’s movement in Taiwan has for the first time moved beyond protests and contestations to further influence framing of public policies within the state institution. Now the same approach has been applied to different departments of the government, ensuring women’s demand and voices from civil society are heard at all levels of policy-making.

Also through this interactive mechanism of the Committee for the Promotion of Women’s Rights, Gender Mainstreaming, the global strategy for improving gender equality widely endorsed by the international community, was introduced into Taiwan’s domestic agenda and soon implemented in all policy sectors. From then on, all policies, laws and regulations, as well as government programs and projects are required to be examined and accessed through a gender perspective. More encouragingly, the reserved seat quota for women has gone beyond 25% – what Peng had proposed – to today’s 33%, marking a breakthrough in women’s political participation.

Beyond the Sorrow, There is a Hope for Change

Peng’s death was a heartbreaking loss. Yet at the same time, it was also an inspiration to her fellow activists and the whole society; it became an inspiration leading to meaningful changes and progress in women’s rights in Taiwan. The shock of her death led people, finally, to recognize and realize how urgent it was to take action to stop violence against women. Her death, also made people realize how essential a legal reform was to protect and advance women’s fundamental rights. Because of her death, people finally realized women’s demand and voices should no longer be ignored in any public issue, and only when women are empowered can they fully enjoy equal rights and freedoms.

There is, of course, still a long way to go to achieve real gender equality. But at least Taiwan has made it this far because of the movement that arose after the brutal rape and murder of Peng. Now the sparks of similar transformation has perhaps started in India with thousands and thousands of people pouring out on to the streets demanding gender justice. For too long, people have been unwilling to face the fact that Indian women are living under constant fear of violence; women and girls, despite being on the receiving end, have been made to feel guilty about patriarchal oppression; and advocating for gender equality have been regarded as certain women’s groups’ business. After the Delhi incident, Indian women have become more vocal in speaking up for their rights. An overwhelming number of young men have also joined the protests, one can’t predict the future with absolute certainty, but at least for this moment violence against women has become “everyone’s issue” rather than merely a “women’s issue”. More significantly, people have started seeking concrete ways to change the patriarchal mindset deep-rooted in Indian society with a long-term perspective. Comprehensive judicial and legal reforms have therefore come under public focus while scientific sex education in schools and gender sensitive training for key stakeholders have been strongly demanded. Also, the demand for speedy passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill to strengthen women’s political participation is getting louder and louder.

We, in Taiwan believe and hope that the death of the anonymous 23-year-old young woman, who has been named variously as “Damini”“Nirbhaya”“Unknown Citizen” by numerous protesters, will never go in vain. Beyond the sorrow, there is always a hope for change.

This article is also published on New Socialist Initiative (NSI) – Delhi’s Chapter



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