SWAN’s Conference on Democracy and Inclusive Good Governance

Report on SWAN’s Conference on Democracy and Inclusive Good Governance, held in Kathmandu on 13-15 May 2014.

Democracy and Inclusive Good Governance for Gender Equality and Sustainable Development in South Asia : The Way Forward

Kathmandu, Nepal,
13-15 May 2014

In collaboration between

Veena Sikri, Convener, SWAN (South Asia Women’s Network), New Delhi

Indira Shrestha, Chief Executive, Shtrii Shakti, Kathmandu

Deepak D. Tamang, Executive Director, SEARCH-Nepal, Kathmandu

Summary of Key-note Address by Professor Veena Sikri, Convener, SWAN, at the Inaugural Session on 13 May 2014 :

SWAN brings together women leaders from nine South Asian countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. SWAN’s vision, as spelt out at its Fifth Annual Conference in Colombo in August 2013, is to bring in sustainable development for South Asia, where women play equal and equitable roles in the socio-political, economic (including technological), and environmental sectors. SWAN believes in gender equality, justice, respect, and dignity for women, together with inclusive and democratic governance at the individual, family, community, national and regional levels. Substantive gender equality, equity and inclusiveness constitute the essential underpinnings of sustainable development.

The nine countries of South Asia are endowed with rich natural resources, combined with geographic and biological diversity. They share a unique cultural and civilizational heritage, including spiritual philosophies and knowledge systems. This shared diversity is our core strength, with enormous growth potential, which has yet to be tapped. Even where growth and development have taken place, this has been done with scant regard for ecological and environmental considerations, and even worse, without involving women and ensuring their empowerment as an intrinsic and inalienable part of the process of development.

The women of South Asia have similar problems of grinding poverty, poor levels of achievement in the human development indices, poor maternal and child health, poor literacy rates and high levels of school drop-outs, violence against women in all its forms and manifestations, social injustice and gender inequalities of the worst kind, economic discrimination, including through lack of ownership or inadequate control over resources, tremendous vulnerability during and in the aftermath of environmental disasters and armed conflicts. SWAN recognizes that these issues pertaining to women are common to all communities, religious beliefs and ethnic groups across South Asia, and have defied solution despite decades of effort by individual governments in SWAN nations.

It is a unique moment in South Asia’s history that today there are democratic regimes all across the region. Democracy has been accepted across South Asia as the most participatory and representative form of government, which upholds basic human rights, substantive equality for all before the law, and ensures the maximum development of individual human capabilities. However, if democratic principles are not upheld, if the strength of democratic institutions is not sustained, if the principles of transparency and accountability are vitiated, democracy becomes the vicious struggle for power through corruption, and criminalization, sidetracking the ideology behind this concept (democracy) that is so crucial for bringing in sustainable development.

Women’s participation in governance has so far been very limited across South Asia. Although the countries of South Asia do count women as equal citizens through the constitutional and legal rights accorded to them, yet women’s role in the political process remains weak and insignificant. The countries of South Asia have led the world in providing women Prime Ministers and Presidents, yet the women of this region lag behind most regions of the world in terms of women’s empowerment and substantive gender equality. It is important to strengthen the role of women in institutions of democracy at all levels, from the national legislature to local self-government. This is essential for ensuring effective implementation of substantive equality and equity, women’s rights and women’s empowerment in the system and in society, in order to bring in sustainable development for all.

Through this Conference on Democracy and Inclusive Good Governance for Gender Equality and Sustainable Development in South Asia, SWAN emphasises the following :

  • Requests the governments of South Asia to recognize and accept that women are the worst affected by the ongoing and overlapping multiple crises that impact our societies individually and collectively : namely, the global financial, economic and ecological crises. These crises have seriously weakened the capacities of individual governments in South Asia to overcome their respective internal socio-economic problems, which, too, adversely impact women and children more than any other group in society. Governments should recognize that women are the worst-affected because of their vulnerable position in societies across South Asia. Women do the majority of the work in agriculture, in the informal sector and in households, in bringing up children ad in imparting values to their children. Yet, there is this fundamental dilemma of the “economic invisibility” of South Asian women, because their ceaseless and tireless labour is largely excluded from national accounting systems. Similarly, women are largely excluded from governance and decision-making structures, from ownership of assets, and from participation in conflict-resolution and peace-making mechanisms.
  •  Essentially, the firmly entrenched patriarchal mind-set and patriarchal system has ensured women’s subordinate role within family and society. This has exposed women to violence in its worst forms, and has seriously reduced access of the girl child to educational facilities, and of mothers to healthcare including maternal health-care. Even when women are involved in creative and productive activities like weaving and crafts, their disempowered status reduces their bargaining power and their ability to derive adequate financial returns or remuneration for their efforts. Patriarchy and violence, including threats of violence, erode the very foundations of democracy and gender justice, thereby preventing the exercise and enjoyment of rights by women and other weaker sections of society. In this way they undermine and negate the objectives of any constitutional and legal provisions favouring gender equality, and obstruct the advancement and empowerment of women in social, political and economic spheres of activity. Let us accept what Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has said in his book “The Argumentative Indian”, that “gender equality is a far-reaching societal impairment, not merely a special deprivation of women. That social understanding is urgent as well as momentous”.
  • The patriarchal hierarchy has ensured that most government policies have been gender-blind in their formulation and implementation, failing to recognise, leave alone give due importance to the specific needs of women in order to help them overcome their disadvantaged position in society. This in turn has further strengthened patriarchal norms and has denied to most women any substantial or substantive benefit from the process of economic development across and within the nations of South Asia. SWAN urges that all South Asian governments give special focus to ensuring that all laws are gender-sensitive, including in accepting the need for gender-responsive budgeting and gender-audit to empower the women of South Asia.
  • Gender empowerment and gender equality has so far been viewed essentially as a rights issue. SWAN seeks recognition and acceptance from the Governments of South Asia of the important economic dimension of the societal transformation that can be achieved through gender empowerment. There is growing awareness internationally that a gender unequal society can and does seriously hamper growth and development. Ensuring gender equality benefits men and women alike through the shared economic prosperity this brings to the community and the nation. The World Bank in its 2012 World Development Report on “Gender Equality and Development” states that “gender equality is a core development objective in its own right. It is also smart economics. Greater gender equality can enhance productivity, improve development outcomes for the next generation, and make institutions more representative”. In short, without gender equality no nation can overcome poverty, or achieve its full potential for economic growth and prosperity. The conclusion of the 2012 World Development Report is that empowering women by reducing the gender gap brings about a more efficient use of the nation’s human capital endowment, that reducing gender inequality enhances productivity and economic growth. “Closing gender gaps is not only a matter of human rights and equity: it is also one of efficiency”.
  • Finally, SWAN’s focus is to ensure that women themselves are the agency for their own empowerment. So far, women have been largely left out of the development process. The MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) have had only limited success, essentially because these were not based on an integrated, cross-sectoral and holistic approach, including the acceptance of gender equality as central to the development process. The UN MDG Report of 2011 pointed out that worldwide, 70%, or seven out of ten people living below the poverty line (US$ 1.25 a day) are women; and 70% (seven out of ten) people dying from starvation are also women. Worldwide, fewer women are employed than men (48% and 75% respectively). Decent work and a living wage for the women of South Asia is still a distant dream. MDG 3 on gender equality, has as one of its target-indicators the share of women in wage-employment in the non-agricultural sector. This excludes the vast majority of women in South Asia, who work in the agricultural sector and/ or in other non-formal sectors. MDG 3 does not take on board the gender-based wage-gap, which is among the highest in South Asia. MDG 3 does not take into account the need for decent work for women, at appropriate wages, and with good working conditions.

SWAN’s Roadmap for Sustainable Development for the Women of South Asia, adopted at SWAN’s Fifth Annual Conference in Colombo in August 2013, seeks to agree on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that will make women central to the process of sustainable and equitable development in South Asia. Sustainable economies must move away from the focus on just “efficiency” to the focus on “sufficiency” based sustainable development paradigms. There should be an independent goal on women’s priorities among the SDGs, but most important, women’s issues must be a cross-cutting and cross-sectoral priority in each SDG, with appropriate targets and achievement methodologies.

The Way Forward : The Kathmandu Conference on Democracy and Inclusive Good Governance for Gender Equality and Sustainable Development in South Asia (13-15 May 2014) focused on the enabling environment that is essential in every democratic society in order that women may rise above their prevailing abject conditions to become equal partners with men on the path to economic growth and prosperity for all. The Conference considered the improvements and changes that are necessary to facilitate and enable greater participation by women in governance, particularly at grass-roots levels. As the way forward, the Conference agreed to prepare a long-term project, “Sustaining Political Empowerment for the Women of South Asia Through Democratic and Inclusive Good Governance”.

SWAN would work on this project through its network of identified Women Studies’ Centre and NGOs, one in each of the nine SWAN nations. The country nodal point would identify best practices and compile case studies on democracy and inclusive good governance for gender equality and gender empowerment. Based on these best practices and case studies, SWAN would convene Intervention Programmes (Workshops) that would finalise policy recommendations (for advocacy with governments), and would take up leadership development and capacity building for the participating representatives from SWAN nations. This would greatly strengthen advocacy, leadership development and capacity building in countries which do not, at present, have substantial women’s political participation.

It was agreed that the SWAN project would focus on the following areas of democratic and inclusive good governance :

  • The institutions of local self-governance, including panchayati raj, and their importance in empowering rural women : In the 1990s four countries of South Asia (India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan) introduced quota and reservation for women in their elected local self-government bodies. Some, like Pakistan, introduced such reservation at the national legislative levels as well. In Nepal, there is one-third reservation for women in party posts, as well as for candidates in the national elections as also Constituent Assembly elections. Each country follows its own methodology, and there have been many studies, with much data and documentation, training manuals and resource materials on the outcome of such affirmative action methodologies. Women emerged in large numbers to participate and vote in these elections, where women were candidates. There was a veritable silent revolution in the rural areas of of India, Nepal and Bangladesh.

The key issue is that how effective have these affirmative action programmes been in empowering women at grassroots levels? We need to know whether these efforts at political empowerment of women have been sustained, and what has been their impact both on women’s advancement as well as on inclusive governance. It does seem that in recent times, in the course of evolving democracy and political changes in these countries, many of the initial benefits of these affirmative action programmes for women have been seriously diluted. The enthusiasm of scholars and policy makers has also waned, so much so that there is very little fresh data or research on this crucially important issue.  Even where the reservations are still continuing, as in India and Pakistan, these are now taken for granted, and the challenge to continually improve women’s political and social empowerment is glossed over.

Political parties, with all their deficiencies, are likely to remain the principal instruments for steering the functioning and activation of democratic processes, practices and values. Accordingly, it is important to assess the role of political parties, including the need for inner party democracy and the need to ensure adequate political representation for women at all levels. The low level of participation of women in politics severely limits the role they can play in strengthening democracy and democratic processes.

Without the socio-political empowerment of the women of South Asia, there can be no sustainable development in this region. Hence it is important and necessary to take stock of earlier efforts to strengthen women’s political empowerment, and to suggest specific measures to enhance this process and make it more comprehensive.

The identified SWAN partner in each country would undertake a study on women’s political participation at local, national and regional levels : their role and contribution; the challenges, including the benefits of affirmative action; the extent of mobility from the local to national levels; impact of and impediments to women’s participation, at personal, familial levels, social and community level, including as a result of patriarchal practices.

Expected Outcomes: (i) Strengthening democracy and inclusive good governance through women’s empowerment, especially through women’s greater commitment to accountability, transparency and non-corrupt governance; (ii) Improving the social status and condition of women in the community, and promoting their awareness and enjoyment of constitutional and human rights. (iii) Sustaining and encouraging the empowered and elected women to continue their political and social contribution through their careers, including through upward mobility in the ladder in governance. (iv) Formulation of gender sensitive policies and measures, which promote gender equality and gender justice, including through education of the girl child and elimination of violence against women. (v) Identification of much-needed governance inputs for the capacity building of women, including improved access to finance for women, and livelihood and entrepreneurship development among women.

  • Gender Responsive Budgeting, Gender Audit and Gender Sensitive Laws for Engendering Governance and Empowering the Women of South Asia : Engendering governance is the all-important starting point for bringing in gender equality and empowering women to participate on par with men in every aspect of national, community and family life. Therefore, right from financial allocations to each Ministry (including provincial allocations), utilization of funds within each Ministry, and formulations of laws, it is essential to ensure that the interests of gender equality and gender justice are being met. In South Asia the gender gap in governance is very high in all spheres, since women’s representation in management and political positions is extremely low : just 7% in Parliament, 9% in Cabinet posts; 20% in local governance, 9% in civil services, and 6% in the judiciary.[1] Women are being left out of the development and growth process, and their fundamental rights to equality and non-discriminatory treatment are being ignored.

Since budgets allocate resources to different sectors of the economy, an important first step in engendering governance is the principle of gender-responsive budgeting (GRB). The budget is the key tool in the hands of governments for affirmative action to reduce the gender gap and ensure adequate access to resources and services for women and children in crucial areas like education, health, employment, economic opportunities and political participation. Gender responsive budgeting should include targets of financial allocations for women: the optimal target of 30% gender allocations under all ministries is far from being achieved.

The implementation and effectiveness of gender-responsive budgeting can be assessed only through a stringent mechanism for gender audit. It is fairly routine that resource allocations made under GRB do not reach on time, remain unspent, or are spent on purposes for which they were not intended. There should be proper monitoring and supervision of the allocated funds with greater transparency and accountability at all levels. Several methodologies can be adopted for gender audit of budgets. In some countries, this is done by governments themselves, and in others, individuals and groups outside government undertake the budgetary analysis. Gender audit of budgets can provide crucial inputs for creating a gender-sensitive policy framework, to assist governments in integrating the correct gender perspective into the budget and other public expenditure projects. Gender audit is a vital tool for identifying and analyzing the factors that hinder (or facilitate) gender-mainstreaming in planning, policy-making and programme implementation.

Gender audit should become an integral part of all development efforts within and outside government. In addition to gender audit of budgets, there should be gender audits of housing policy, water policy, energy and environment policy, population policy, labour policy, national health policy, disaster management policy, policy for financial assistance and even foreign policy! Women’s interests in all these sectors have been historically neglected and there is an urgent need to deconstruct the institutionalised hegemony resulting from the patriarchal mindset that has created dismally huge gender gaps across every sector of society and activity.

Above all, gender audit is needed of all legislation and constitutional amendments in order to ensure that laws are gender-sensitive and non-discriminatory, that they do not disadvantage women in any way. The civil and criminal legal system, family and labour laws, procedural laws, rules and regulations, and electoral laws should be subject to gender audit in order to ensure gender justice and gender equality.

SWAN plans a series of workshops, focussing on advocacy (policy recommendations), leadership development and capacity-building among the women of South Asia, in order that they may be fully informed of the value and importance of gender responsive budgeting, gender audit and gender sensitive laws. The objective of these workshops is to engender governance with women as agents of change, so that the women of South Asia themselves are part of national and regional efforts to evolve a gender-just policy framework for decision-makers in government structures, local self-government institutions, legislative assemblies, parliaments, judiciary and legal systems, educational institutions, corporate structures, financial and funding institutions, and in the media.

  • Role of women in peacemaking and conflict resolution processes in South Asia : War is no longer an acceptable option for the people of South Asia; neither are war-like situations resulting from violent conflict, terrorism, extremism, fundamentalism, and deprivation because of extreme poverty. Peace and sustainable development are closely interlinked.

Threats to peace, whether conventional or non-conventional, internal or external, have a disproportionately adverse impact on all marginalized sections of society, most particularly on women and children. Women face discrimination and repression during war and conflict situations, such as violence and forced exclusion from education. Women Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and refugees are exposed to risks of rape, human trafficking, and sexual harassment. IDP and refugee women lack access to justice in the absence of the established state jurisprudence and writ. Legal aid is inadequate, and women law enforcement personnel are not available to make legal aid women friendly. Access to education, and health services such as maternal and reproductive health care, are limited or absent. In war and conflict zones, women without male earning members are overburdened with providing for the family amidst prevailing stagnated economic activities.

UN Security Council Resolutions, 1325 (2000), 1820 (2008), 1888 (2009), 1889 (2009), and 1890 (2009), highlight women’s role as central in conflict-prevention, and when conflicts occur, to the process of peace-building and conflict resolution. Women are inherently the anchors of family and community, and a force for tolerance and peace, supporting co-existence across cultures, religions, and ethnicities. As such they can play a key role in re-establishing the fabric of recovering societies, and therefore, must be involved in the development and implementation of post-conflict strategies in order to ensure inclusion of their perspectives and needs. The UN recognizes that marginalization of women can delay or undermine achievement of durable peace, security and reconciliation, and expresses deep concern about persistent obstacles to women’s full involvement in conflict resolution and peace-building, because of violence and intimidation, cultural discrimination and stigmatization, and the rise of extremist or fanatical views on women, as well as socio-economic factors including lack of access to education.

SWAN emphasizes that good governance, peace and sustainable development are inextricably intertwined and mutually reinforcing in their attainment. Conflict is development in reverse : it negates the efforts to bring in sustainable development. Women’s agency, participation and leadership is central to achieving these three goals. The SDGs must recognize the critical contribution of women’s participation and rights in conflict prevention and in achieving peace-building and conflict-resolution. Decisions should be made with women, not for them. Women recognize differences, but build on commonalities. SWAN proposes a Workshop on Strengthening Women’s Role in Peacemaking and Conflict Resolution across South Asia. Towards this end, SWAN has already initiated discussions on the South Asia Women’s Peace Charter. This Workshop will analyze the particular needs of women and children in pre-conflict, conflict and post-conflict situations, the challenges they face, and how to overcome these challenges. Through this Workshop, SWAN aims to raise awareness about the negative impact of conflict on women, to build consensus among stakeholders on adopting non-violence as the methodology of choice for all situations, and to support the role of women as peace leaders through appropriate capacity-building for representation in all mechanisms and institutions of governance. Society, especially the younger generation, should be educated on the nature of peace and avoidance of conflict, including through the promotion of tolerance and coexistence across different cultures, religions and ethnicities. Parliamentarians should be informed about the importance of women’s representation in peace-making initiatives, and women leaders should be equipped with skills to enter peace talks at national, regional and international levels.

  • Education as a force for empowering women by facilitating their participation in democratic processes, including curriculum review to ensure gender-sensitive portrayal of women, which is crucial for changing stereo-typed mindsets that encourage violence against women;
  • Elimination of violence against women

The Conference will seek agreement on inputs for finalising Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the women of South Asia in this all-important sector of political participation and democratic and inclusive good governance. In each of the identified outcome areas, the Conference will focus on policy recommendations, on leadership development among women, and on capacity building for change at all levels. With these inputs, the Conference would work towards a longer-term three-year integrated project, seeking to involve women at grass-roots levels in all aspects of democratic and inclusive good governance.

[1] Smita Mishra Panda “Engendering Governance Institutions, State, Market and Civil Society”, 2008, SAGE Publications, New Delhi

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