By Sarah Hannan
South Asia Women’s Network (SWAN) in partnership with Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce hosted the fifth annual SWAN conference at Kingsbury Hotel recently. The highlight of the conference was the signing of the Colombo Declaration.
‘Gender Equity for Peace and Sustainable Development for the Women of South Asia’ being the theme of this year’s conference, it witnessed over 50 foreign delegates from India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Pakistan, Myanmar and Afghanistan including a member of Parliament from Afghanistan and Cabinet Minister Dr. Mariyam Shakeela from Maldives and a number of Sri Lankan delegates from various organisations.
The inaugural session was presided over by Chief Guest Minister of Economic Development, Basil Rajapaksa at the ceremony held on Friday 23 August and the Guest of Honour, Vice Chancellor of the University of Colombo Prof. Savithri Gunasekera, was among the guests and delegates present at the conference.
SWAN Convener and Ford Foundation endowed Chair Prof. Veena Sikri in her keynote address drew the audience’s attention to the last verse of the national anthem of Sri Lanka: “Nava jeevana demine nithina apa pubudu karan matha, Gnana veerya vadavamina ragena yanu mana jaya bhoomi kara, Eka mavekuge daru kala bavina, yamu yamu wee nopama, Prema vadamu sama bheda durara da Namo Namo Matha! (In wisdom and strength renewed, Ill-will, hatred, strife all ended, In love enfolded, a mighty nation Marching onward, all as one, Lead us, Mother, to fullest freedom)” and urged that all across South Asia should unite and move forward towards common goals.
Prof. Sikri reiterated that women are the first victims of war and war-related conflicts in the South Asian region. She further explained that the involvement and inclusion of women in the peace building process is of utmost importance as they play an important part in society.
“Sustainable development is not possible without peace within and across this region. This is a critical concern for the women of South Asia, since they bear the brunt of all conflict situations, be it armed conflict, terrorism, violence against women in all its manifestations, and natural disasters. The peace we seek cannot ever be at the expense of women’s rights. SWAN supports a peaceful, stable, democratic, conflict free and economically prosperous South Asia, and emphasises that, in every decision-making process of conflict-resolution, peacemaking and socio-economic development.”
Eliminating boundaries and creating rich diversities
Prof. Savithri Gunasekera mentioned that eliminating boundaries and creating rich diversities would assist in addressing the critical issues of society. She also added that due to globalisation, the methods of sharing ideas have reached a wide spectrum due to accessibility to information in any form. Considering this SWAN has included human development, sustainable development, inclusive development and people-centred development in its common agenda.
“It is important to provide access to basic needs for everyone. Sri Lanka has earned a growing disregard due to fast forwarding economic growth and we should not lower our benchmarks. The private sector and the Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO) should partner with the State in developing and building a sustainable economic growth.”
On a brighter note, Prof. Gunasekera mentioned that the health and education indexes for women in Sri Lanka are at a higher rank than the rest of Asia. Touching on the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Treaty, Prof. Gunasekera pointed out that the concept of gender equity should be considered for discussions rather than discussing about gender equality in the treaty’s article numbers 3 and 15.
She also brought to the attention of Minister Rajapaksa that the governing body should implement a ‘Right To Information Act’ in Sri Lanka (Sri Lanka is the only country that does not have the afore mentioned act). Prof. Gunasekera also called on the Government to create employment opportunities in the field relating to information sharing, humanities and social sciences as it would make a creative contribution towards the region’s economic growth.
SWAN and South Asia
Responding to a question by the Daily FT on what made SWAN launch programs to empower women in the South Asian region when there are many women’s rights and empowerment organisations in the world, Prof. Veena Sikri said: “It is important to know that SWAN drew inspiration through the founder of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh – Nobel Laureate and Professor Muhammad Yunus. He issued loans to poor families in Bangladesh and learnt that when loans were issued to women, they ensured that the investments were returned to the institution and at the same time it benefited the family’s economical stability. Keeping this in mind we commenced SWAN to assist and empower South Asian women who are generally trapped at the bottom of the patriarchal pyramid.”
Outlining challenges that SWAN faced since its inception and the steps taken to overcome them, Prof. Veena Sikri said: “The biggest challenge is changing the mindsets of the society. All the countries which are part of SWAN have common issues when it comes to patriarchy therefore we have formulated intervention programs that would enable us to empower women in Conflict Zones and Internally Displaced Camps. At the same time we urge the governing bodies and organisations to include women in the process of peace making and peace building programs. We are also looking at drawing a ‘Peace Charter for Asia’ after the deliberations from the conference which ended today (24 August) and earnestly hope it would assist in eliminating violence against women. SWAN will also work towards being a change agent and encourage communities to come forward not only as strong individuals but also as a strong civilisation.”
Overview of SWAN
SWAN functions through eight sectoral networks known as SWANs. The network covers sectors of ‘Education,’ ‘Finance,’ ‘Entrepreneurship and Livelihood Development,’ ‘Arts and Literature,’ ‘Women in Peacemaking,’ ‘Environment,’ ‘Health,’ ‘Nutrition and Food Sovereignty,’ ‘Crafts and Textile’ and ‘Women in Media’; each SWAN has its own coordinator, and the eight coordinators, together with the Convener, form SWAN’s core group.
The following annual conferences have been held by SWAN over the years:
=First annual conference – ‘Women of South Asia: Partners in Development’ organised at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, India on 30-31 March 2009
=Second annual conference – ‘Media Perspectives by Women Journalists and Women as Partners in Development’ in Chandigarh, India from 13-15 March 2010
=Third annual conference – ‘Women of South Asia and the Green Economy’ in Dhaka, Bangladesh on 2-3 July 2011
=Fourth annual conference – ‘Women of South Asia and Sustainable Development” in Kathmandu, Nepal on 17-18 July 2012.
Pix by Upul Abayasekara