Message from Prof Veena Sikri Convener SWAN

GREETINGS FROM VEENA SIKRI, FOUNDING TRUSTEE AND CONVENER, SOUTH ASIA WOMEN’S NETWORK (SWAN)

As we enter the 2020s, the South Asia Women’s Network (SWAN) can look back with immense satisfaction on the successful completion of the first decade of its existence and activities. 2019 was a milestone year for SWAN. We marked the completion of the first decade of our formation by convening the landmark Tenth Annual Conference.

SWAN’s Tenth Annual Conference was convened in New Delhi from 31st August to 2nd September 2019, with the participation of around 80 eminent representtaives from nine countries, inclusding 20 from India. The theme of this Conference was “Gender Empowerment for Sustainable Development : Issues and Challenges Facing the Women of South Asia”. SWAN sincerely expresses its gratitude to Tata Trusts for their generosity in supporting this Conference. SWAN thanks the Siddhomal Group for their support. 

SWAN brings together women leaders, parliamentarians, academicians, experts, activists and media representatives from nine countries : Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. SWAN coordinates its activities through eight sectoral networks, also called SWANs, respectively dealing with the Environment; Arts and Literature; Women in Peacemaking; Health, Nutrition and Food Sovereignty; Education; Crafts and Textiles; Finance, Livelihoods and Entrepreneurship Development; and Women in Media. 

SWAN was established in March 2009 at the Conference on “Women of South Asia : Partners in Development” convened at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi. This Conference was inaugurated by Nobel Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh. Initially, SWAN was located within Jamia Millia Islamia University. Subsequently, SWAN functioned as a programme of the South Asia Foundation (SAF-India), New Delhi, a registered Trust1. Since June 2017, SWAN, now registered as an Article 64 Trust under the Indian Trusts Act of 1882, is functioning independently, with Professor Veena Sikri as the Founding Trustee and Convener.

South Asia is endowed with rich natural resources, combined with immense geographic and biological diversity. The people of South Asia share a unique cultural and civilizational heritage, including spiritual philosophies and knowledge systems. This shared diversity is South Asia’s core strength, with enormous growth potential.

SWAN recognises the serious challenges facing the women of South Asia, irrespective of their religious beliefs and ethnicities.  These include poverty, poor maternal and child health, low educational achievements and illiteracy, violence, social injustice, economic discrimination, lack of ownership or inadequate control over resources, tremendous vulnerability during and after environmental disasters and armed conflicts, and the socio-political and bureaucratic culture that undermines and constrains women in myriad spheres of national life. These challenges have defied solution, despite decades of effort by individual governments, which have yielded far too few successes. Despite several outstanding examples of individual and collective achievements, women across South Asia still constitute an overwhelmingly large body of underprivileged citizens, surviving within the limits of an environment that remains largely hostile.

SWAN emphasises the importance of gender empowerment as the key to sustainable economic growth, social development and environmental sustainability in South Asia. SWAN’s vision is to achieve sustainable development for South Asia through an integrated approach incorporating the centrality of women’s agency, voice, participation and leadership in all the three dimensions of sustainable development : socio-political, economic and environmental. 

SWAN’s strategy for achieving this is based on strengthening partnerships through an institutional network across South Asia, working together to agree upon policy recommendations for governments, (including resistance to policies that perpetuate inequality, inequity and injustice); to develop leadership skills among the women of South Asia in order that they are empowered with the relevant education and conceptual, managerial, and technical knowledge to lead the movement for sustainable development in this region; and to focus on capacity building for change at all levels.

Incorporating this vision and strategy, SWAN finalized and adopted its “Roadmap for Sustainable Development for the Women of South Asia” at its Fifth Annual Conference in Colombo in August 2013. At its Sixth Annual Conference in Thimphu in September 2014, SWAN initiated the new phase of its activities in implementation of the agreed Roadmap, prioritizing specific sectors and areas. Through the Seventh Annual Conference in Maldives (October 2015), the Eighth Annual Conference in Yangon, Myanmar (October 2016), and the Ninth Annual Conference in Kathmandu (November 2017) SWAN has successfully transitioned to the focus on projects for empowering the women of South Asia.

SWAN’s Annual Conferences are vital and invaluable for conceptualizing and planning specific activities that are then implemented over the next 12 months. The Annual Conferences bring together key stakeholders from nine South Asian countries, those involved in the projects and activities under consideration. The objectives and methodology for each project are agreed upon collectively, but ground-work and implementation is by participating institutions in each country. 

SWAN’s Tenth Annual Conference targetted the specific review of progress achieved on flagship projects, together with discussion of critical challenges  facing the women of South Asia. Active participants and presenters in the sessions included Cabinet Ministers from Bhutan and Maldives, Members of Parliament from Afghanistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and India, Information Commissioner and Human Rights Commissioner from Nepal, together with leading academicians, NGO heads, media researchers from all the participating countries.       

SWAN’s flagship project “Women for Change : Building a Gendered Media in South Asia”, has achieved definitive success after more than five years of coordinated, collective research by the participating institutions and individuals from nine countries of South Asia. The Tenth Annual Conference discussed the Interim Report on the Status of Women in Media in South Asia, that encapsulated specific research outcomes, covering the news media, the advertising sector, the entertainment media, including films; journalism and mass communication curricula; and the existing gender-related legislations and policy mechanisms in nine countries. The research highlights unequal working conditions for women and a retrograde portrayal of women in media. The media is an important partner in the promotion of gender equality as well as in removing negative gender stereotypes embedded in individual and community mindsets. The media has a critical role as a reflection of society and an agent of change, through media freedom with responsibility. If sufficiently empowered, women in media can themselves be the change they want to see. The need to deter, counter and overcome gender-based violence (GBV) and sexual harassment is a cross-cutting priority in this project, as an issue that adversely impacts every aspect of women’s work in media and society. The seminal research conducted through this project constitutes a unique effort to identify meaningful and effective mechanisms that can ensure a gender sensitive media with equal, non-discriminatory rights, protection against sexual harassment and gender based violence at the workplace, and respect for women in portrayal, both in media content and advertising. The mechanisms can include formal legislation, guidelines, codes of conduct and ethics, regulatory bodies and self-regulatory mechanisms. Each of the nine countries is keenly debating these issues, and a few have good mechanisms in place, but there is inadequate focus on implementation.

With the support of Tata Trusts, SWAN successfully convened the Inception Workshop for the Rural Tourism based Social Enterprise Project for Sustainable Development and Gender Empowerment in South Asia, held in New Delhi and Jaripani (Uttarakhand) from November 25 to 28, 2019. Tourism is a natural avenue for revenue generation across South Asia. It is also the most instinctive and successful way to bring the peoples of South Asia closer to each other. Ecotourism is environmentally responsible tourism. It inculcates respect for different cultures and sub-cultures, and is essential for sustainable development of regions and people. SWAN emphasises the vital role of ecotourism for integrating women into the process of sustainable development. Women play a central role in rural communities in agriculture, crafts and textiles, waste management, arts and music, cuisine and hospitality, preservation of the environment and culture, and inculcating traditional values in the next generation. All these are core values for the development of eco-tourism. By making local communities stake-holders and the principal beneficiaries in eco-tourism projects, the aspect of gender empowerment for the women in these communities receives the highest priority. Eco-tourism becomes the vehicle for skills, livelihood and sustainable development for the women of South Asia. The participants in this Inception  Workshop were inspired by the success of Himmotthan Society’s rural tourism project in Jaripani to renew efforts to implement the planned ecotourism projects in their respective countries.

Two critical issues that impact gender empowerment, and through this, challenge the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), are first, South Asia’s Malnutrition Challenge, and second, Women’s Unpaid Work. South Asia is the worst affected region in the world where the prevalence of stunting and wasting among children is the highest and so is the number of severely food-insecure people. Women’s poor nutritional status not only affects their own health, but also has long term intergenerational effects on nutritional and health status of children and their development and productivity. As a natural corollary, women should play a central role in the solution-seeking and solution-implementation process, bringing to bear their traditional knowledge of health-sustaining and nutrition-building processes strongly based on locally-available inputs, combined with the relevant aspects of modern science. South Asia needs a new focus, new partnerships and innovative methodology in order to face up to the challenge of meeting the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of “no hunger and malnutrition” by 2030. Increasingly, it is being realized that achieving SDG 5 (Gender Equality) will be impossible if the goals to eradicate hunger and malnutrition are not met. 

Women’s unpaid work essentially covers that work which does not receive direct remuneration, and as a result, is not counted in national income accounts and is therefore invisible in national data systems. Women’s unpaid work includes unpaid care for one’s own children, and for the old, sick and disabled members of the family; unpaid household chores, such as cooking, cleaning, washing, and shopping for the family, as well as, in rural areas, collecting fuel, firewood and fetching water for the family. The burden of such unpaid services falls disproportionately on women. It is estimated that as much as 80 per cent of such unpaid work is done by women. As a result, women have a significantly lower (and falling) labour force participation rate, lower wages, lower self-esteem, and poorer health. It is vital to recognize this problem, reduce the burden of unpaid women’s work, and redistribute the burden among all members of the family.

In the Valedictory Session, SWAN’s Tenth Annual Conference benefitted greatly from the views expressed at the South Asia Parliamentarians’ Round Table. The experience of Members of Parliament, serving and former, and the guidance, inspiration and support they offered the SWAN participants was invaluable. Finally, there was a wide-ranging exchange of views on Perspectives on the Way Ahead, with new suggestions, organizational and structural, which will guide SWAN in the second decade of their activities.

 The South Asia Women’s Network (SWAN) thanks the presenters and participants in the Tenth Annual Conference for the strength of their vision, for their support to the ideals that SWAN represents, and for the continuity of their caring and sharing presence as SWAN continues its journey.

Veena Sikri
Professor & Ambassador
Founding Trustee and Convener,
South Asia Women’s Network (SWAN)
&
Vice Chairperson
South Asia Foundation-India