30-31 March 2009
The geo-cultural region of SAARC comprising Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka is linked together by age-old cultural, social and historical traditions and commonalities that constitute solid foundations for regional cooperation to address the economic and social needs of people, especially, women and girls.
Home to 39.2% of the world's population half of whom are women, South Asia is the planet's poorest region. About 540 million people, or 45 percent of the region's population, are living below poverty line, with daily incomes of less than one dollar. This proportion is higher than in Sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific region including China.
Women’s Rights as Human Rights
The SAARC Gender Database shows that women are less likely to have access to health services, enjoy civil, political and legal equality with men and less likely to benefit from economic and social security. Women in South Asia are more vulnerable to discrimination, social injustice, gender inequality and violence as compared to those living in Western countries. The majority living in poverty implies lower status in nearly all human development indicators: life expectancy, sex-ratio, HIV status, disability, occupational health or health in work settings, reproductive health, family planning, pre-natal peri-natal, post-natal services, infection control, micro-nutrient supplements, water and sanitation, nutrition, literacy, shelter, control over local resources and extreme vulnerability to shocks associated with natural/environmental disasters and human events including armed conflicts. All these lead to increased debt bondage and further deprivation especially among rural women who, given their lower social status in the patriarchal systems of South Asia, are more severely affected.
Violence against Women and the Law
Violence due to rituals, religious customs and traditions, crimes related to property, dowry, bride burning and honour killings represent one of the most disturbing aspects of South Asia. The sex ratio in all SAARC countries except Sri Lanka and Nepal ranges from 92-98 per 100 males, which points to continued practices of female foeticide and infanticide (UNFPA, 1999). The legal response to these has resulted in a slew of Ordnances and Acts which need to be tested vigorously and widely in the courts of law. Difficulties of definition and proof, and threats of physical and sexual violence often prevent criminalisation of these types of acts. Studies support the view that normative standards need to be set up by the criminal law through a new process of law reform in this area.
Women’s Rights and Control over Land, Property and Resources
The relationship between gender, land and property rights for women is critically and adversely impacted by gender relations and the gaps between ownership and control. Women’s ability to retain ownership and control of land, however meager, is circumscribed by gender relations within families whose members continue to seek to dispossess her. Strictures on women’s visibility, mobility and behaviour whether internalized by women or imposed on them by threats, reprimand or violence, impinge directly on their autonomy and ability to claim and control land and resources.
Genetically modified seeds have been a source of great controversy and distress in agriculture. These affect women more severely. Several viable alternatives have been demonstrated in the region and they need to be shared on a wider platform.
Home, land or non-land based livelihoods of women in the SAARC region are under severe threat in the age of globalization. South Asia has the highest share of the informal sector work in non-agricultural employment in the world. South Asian women have been termed the “invisible and unrecognized backbone of agriculture” which continues to be the mainstay of two-thirds of women despite the declining overall trend of numbers engaged in agriculture. They participate as laborers, managers of homesteads, livestock management, and crop production in addition to unpaid household and farm jobs. One of the main points of difference between male and female self employment is that a higher percentage of women are engaged in home based and casual employment linked to industries for much lower wages than that for men. The gender gap in wages varies between 32.19% in Pakistan to 59.64% in Nepal. (Mitra, 2000). The feminization of occupations is reflected in concentration of women in relatively low wage, low productivity sector of the labor market.
Women and Girl’s Education
Education has been a proven agency for social transformation and empowerment for girls and women. The UNFPA report and WEF (2008), while they differ in their approach to global reality, agree that there are compelling economic advantages flowing from the empowerment of women through education. Yet the report shows that 66% of the world’s illiterates are women and 70% of children out of school are girls, 45% of whom live in the SAARC region. Given that child labor and trafficking are the obvious spaces that children out of school can occupy, education offers dual benefits of empowerment and security from exploitation. Several successful alternative modes for girls’ education have emerged across the region and there is need to engage with these and learn from them.
Women’s Movements in SAARC
These challenges are being vigorously addressed by the women’s movements in South Asia. However, the vast literature on women’s movements for the most part is characterized by three broad tendencies: (Basu, A, 1999). Firstly, it ignores women’s movements in the post-colonial world, a problem of omission and silence; Secondly much of the literature considers women’s movements as correlated to industrialization and urbanization, led by middle class women; whereas in fact, poor women (and Dalits) have also been at the forefront especially in the SAARC region where the women’s movement has been radicalized by the activism of poor women who have not only raised employment and wage demands, but also fought domestic violence, displacement, environment degradation and issues related to local governance, among others. (Basu, A. and Kumar, R. 1999). Thirdly, it assumes sameness in the forms of women’s oppression and women’s movements cross-nationally, which is indeed not the case. In India for instance, attempts to appropriate symbols of women’s power took the form of re-interpreting myths, epics, folktales and unearthing historical forms of women’s resistance in India. Effects of globalization, large scale displacements in the name of development have also served as a peg for resistance and change.
There is need to consolidate the tremendous advances made by the women’s movements in South Asia and address challenges to these movements.
Women and Peace Building
Women in the SAARC region have a rich and unique history of participation in and contribution to the process of nation-building and peace-making. More frequently than in any other region of the world, women have distinguished themselves as Presidents, Prime Ministers and political leaders in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. This is despite the abject poverty and social deprivation afflicting the majority of women in South Asia.
Peace processes in SAARC countries have often adopted feminine, non-violent ways of resistance and assertions. There is need to document the signal role women have played as peace builders and peace keepers in the region and to learn from each others’ efforts. Most local efforts are not widely known across the region, whether it is, for instance, the role of the Mirapaibis in Manipur (India) addressing the Armed Forces Act, or the signal role that women activists have played in Pakistan.
Women in Local Governance
Many South Asian countries have an emerging presence of women in local governance. This process needs to be strengthened and its appropriation by those traditionally in power can only be addressed through collective reflection and solidarity of women. Instruments such as the Right to Information Act have also been effectively used by women to address several issues. Such experiences need to be shared and strengthened.
Muslim Women in SAARC
The status of Muslim women in South Asia, who form a large proportion of the population, calls for particular attention. Muslim women were at the forefront in the demand for education in the early nineteenth century. Rokeya’s Dream, an account of an imagined society where women occupy the public space and men are secluded and how the world is thus transformed pre-dates western radical feminist thought in this genre by several decades. Muslim women writers and activists have since been at the forefront in feminist thought in the region. Anjuman Khawateen e Hind and the Anjuman Khwateen e Panjab were the first women’s organizations in colonial India, set up in the late 1890s and were active long before the All India Women’s Conference. However, as the Sachar Committee in India points out, the status of Muslim women and girls by and large remain very low.
The issue of personal or religion based and differentiated family law remains controversial although individuals can, in some countries such as in India, can choose secular alternatives. Subtle differences in law can have huge impact for empowerment. For instance, while in Pakistan, as in Syria, the nikaah is valid only after registration of marriage, in India, it is only very recently, that compulsory registration of all marriages has been mooted.
These and other issues relating to Muslim women can be addressed more effectively through cross-national and regional sharing and collaboration.
SAARC Social Charter
The SAARC Social Charter seeks the establishment of a people-centered framework for social development to guide their work, to respond to the immediate needs of those who are most affected by human distress and in the future, to build a culture of cooperation and partnership. In particular, the Charter reaffirms the belief that discrimination against women is incompatible with human rights and dignity; that it prevents women from realizing their full potential and participating on equal terms with men in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the nation.
The SAARC Social Charter affirms the need to empower women through literacy and education, recognizing that such empowerment paves the way for faster economic and social development of the country as a whole.
The SAARC Social Charter provides a useful framework for people-to-people initiatives among the women of South Asia. Article II, 2 (xvii) recognizes that empowering “people, particularly women, to strengthen their own capacities……requires the full participation of people in the formulation, implementation and evaluation of decisions”.
The Way Forward
Women in the SAARC region have been engaged in systematic exchanges and collaboration on a wide range of issues and themes. These exchanges have strengthened over the last two decades. This maturing of interactions provides opportunities to initiate sustained and focused networking among organizations in SAARC countries on critical issues related to women and girls. It is proposed that Myanmar, an Observer with SAARC, may also be included in this initiative.
The objective of the proposed Conference is to enable and facilitate partnerships between various groups in South Asia who have proven experience in providing conceptual understanding and in generating field-based action for the empowerment of women in the areas of education, environment, livelihoods, women and girls’ rights to safety and equal participation, literature and the arts, health, crafts, law among others.
As partners in these areas from each country come together, share their experiences and learn from each other, it is expected that partners would identify best practices among those with whom they share common interests. Thereafter, once the networking has been established, partners can evolve sustained plans of action for working together in the future.
Key areas envisaged for partnership, networking and collaborative action among women’s groups in South Asia are:
· Strengthening Collaboration among Women Writers, Poets and Artists : Collective Creative Voices of SAARC Women
· Education of Women and Girls
· Craft based Livelihood and Marketing by and for women
· Sustainable and Environmentally Sensitive Agro-practices
· Addressing and Reducing Violence Against Women
· Gender Equitous Legal Reforms
· Improving women’s Human Development Indices
· Strengthening women’s participation in local governance
Foundation of SAARC Writers and Literature (FOSWAL) is the literary wing of the Academy of Fine Arts and Literature, a non-profit cultural organization based in New Delhi. FOSWAL has been accepted as an Apex Body of SAARC in recognition of the meaningful and significant contributions it has made to strengthening interactions and cultural connectivity among the creative individuals and groups in SAARC countries.
Jamia Millia Islamia, an institution originally established in 1920, became a Central University in 1988 through an Act of the Indian Parliament. At its campus in New Delhi, apart from regular teaching departments, there are several centres for interdisciplinary studies. The Sarojini Naidu Centre for Women’s Studies was set up in 2000 under the University Grants Commission with the goal of promoting research, networking and initiating multidisciplinary collaborative activities related to gender/women’s studies. This Centre, in collaboration with the Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution will be a nodal agency for the WOMEN OF SAARC : PARTNERS IN DEVELOPMENT initiatives.
The organizers feel greatly honoured that Nobel Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus from Bangladesh has graciously agreed to inaugurate the Conference on 30th March 2009 and to deliver the keynote address on WOMEN, MICROCREDIT AND POVERTY ALLEVIATION.
The WOMEN OF SAARC NETWORKS that we will seek to establish after deliberations during the Conference are as follows :
i. Women and Microcredit – to be coordinated by GRAMEEN BANK, Bangladesh (Ms Nurjahan Begum, General Manager);
ii. Women and the Environment – to be coordinated by Dr Vandana Shiva, Navdanya
iii. Women and Education – to be coordinated by Jamia Millia Islamia ( Prof Janaki Rajan, Head of the Sarojini Naidu Centre for Women’s Studies );
iv. Women in Peacemaking – to be coordinated by Jamia Millia Islamia ( Prof Radha Kumar, Head of the Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution );
v. Women’s Malnutrition and Hunger – to be coordinated by Dr Mira Shiva
vi. Women and Creativity – two networks, one on Arts and Literature and the second one on Crafts and Textiles to be coordinated by FOSWAL