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International Women’s Day: Meet 11 of Asia’s trailblazers

Despite progress over the past few decades, women in Asia still face significant, structural barriers to success. Ahead of International Women’s Day 2020, Nikkei Asian Review has selected 11 inspiring female leaders in business, politics, activism and the arts — pathbreaking women who are driving change.

Singer and activist

In the sea of masked, black-clad protesters rallying on the streets of Hong Kong, there is always a familiar face in the crowd. Cantonese pop diva Denise Ho Wan-see has been at the forefront of Hong Kong’s fight for freedom since the former British colony was handed over to China in 1997.

Her participation in the “Umbrella Movement” in 2014 — a 79-day mass sit-in to call for universal suffrage — came at a huge personal cost. She has since been banned in the lucrative mainland China market, dropped from sponsorship deals and even by her record label.

Six years on, the 42-year-old Ho is now a prominent ambassador for Hong Kong’s leaderless democracy movement. As street protests rumbled across the city last year, she went on a global tour to speak on behalf of her comrades at home, giving speeches at a host of conferences overseas, including the Oslo Freedom Forum, the United Nations Human Rights Council and the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

“The main message I want to deliver is that Hong Kong protesters are actually in a global fight for universal values,” Ho told the Nikkei Asian Review. “This is a fight against suppression and censorship, which are also spreading to more and more old democracies. Therefore we should all stand with Hong Kong.”

Ho is outspoken not only on the political front: In 2012 she became the first mainstream singer in Hong Kong to come out publicly as a lesbian. Her advocacy of LGBT rights in the sexually conservative society has made her a frequent target of hate speech.

“There have been many personal attacks based on my gender and sexual orientation,” she recalled, “and people would undermine my words because of that. … But it will only make me speak louder. It’s horrendous. How ridiculous when people believe that [sexual orientation] is something they can attack you [for] in 2020.”

“There have been many personal attacks. … But it will only make me speak louder”

Denise Ho Wan-see, Cantonese singer and activist

It is an encouraging trend that women are taking an increasingly vocal role in social movements, Ho said. But speaking out can come at a price. She spoke of her friend Mai Khoi, a Vietnamese singer whose songs often center on resistance and women’s rights, and who resorted to underground performances after becoming an enemy of the government.

“It is devastating to see what my friend is going through,” she said. “I imagine this is an equally difficult fight for many out there, especially those from repressive countries where women are not supposed to speak up.”

Democratic rights — including people’s right to choose their leaders — are essential for promoting gender equality, Ho argues, citing rights for sexual minorities as an example.

She said LGBT rights in Hong Kong have not advanced at all since she came out eight years ago, while in Taiwan, where the government is democratically elected, same-sex marriage has been legalized.

“This is exactly why we need to fight for democracy and a system in which everyone’s voice is well-represented,” Ho said. “It is not just about gender rights, but also human rights and all kinds of rights people think they deserve.”

For now, Ho is juggling the arduous work of activism with her artistic career. She is in the process of producing a new album, which has been on hold for the past months due to the prolonged protests. Meanwhile, her advocacy is about to embark on a new phase, with…

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