ISLAMABAD: The inaugural ceremony of the Regional Conference for South Asian Women Alliance (Sawa) of Community Leaders was held on Tuesday where speakers and community leaders stressed on the need for connectivity among community leaders in South Asia.
Sawa was formed in January 2016 as an initiative to bring together grassroots women community leaders from South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) member countries and connect them to regional macro-policies and global decision making. Its first conference was also held in Islamabad, during which community leaders called on Saarc to recognise the alliance.
During her opening remarks at Tuesday’s conference, National Commission on the Status of Women Chairperson Khawar Mumtaz suggested that meetings of the alliance be rotated in the Saarc countries, adding that while community leaders do meet horizontally, there are seldom any vertical connections even within activists’ own countries.
Ms Mumtaz identified common areas of engagement for community leaders from the Saarc countries, such as climate change, globalisation, privatisation, extremism and militancy. She said structures need to be built to sustain interaction at the country, national, regional and international levels, saying that “what happens on the ground has to be communicated to those at higher levels of international and national decision making”.
She said recognition from the official Saarc secretariat and Saarc countries will be possible if “we push for putting women on the agenda of Saarc meetings”, alongside regional issues such as trade, commerce, energy, business and so on.
“In order to be recognised we have to be on the agenda of the Saarc meeting, and to get on the Saarc meeting we have to ask our governments to take up the issue when they are making those agendas,” she said.
Samira Hamidi from Afghanistan discussed the charter of demands made at last year’s conference, which included the establishment of Sawa and recognition from Saarc, a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) desk with emphasis on goals five and 16 for gender equality and peace, justice and strong institutions, periodic reports submitted by members on SDG five, zero-tolerance mechanisms regarding violence against women in Saarc member states and more.
Chandni Joshi, the leader of alliance’s technical working group, emphasised the importance of localising the SDGs. She also spoke about women’s contribution to the ‘care economy’, in terms of unpaid domestic labour, which is unrecognised.
She said that in economic terms, such work is “not even defined as work, but as duty” and is not counted in the national accounting systems and therefore is not assessed in a country’s GDP or GNP. “The role of women becomes invisible,” she said. Ms Joshi said the contribution of the care economy – which comes to trillions of dollars annually around the world – is not calculated.
“We keep her so busy in this unpaid work that she hardly gets time to be involved in any kind of agency – be it women’s groups, electoral systems, cooperatives... Her whole life is spent in this care economy work, and her voice, visibility and capabilities are lost.”
She also noted the “triple burden” women bear, taking into account male migration patterns in South Asia, which she said have changed the region’s demographics. “We often give emphasis to the remittances [a] country brings in, but the social cost is neither calculated, nor revealed.”
The conference also included group discussions, in which community leaders and delegates from Bhutan, Nepal, India, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Pakistan split off into four groups to discuss three topics: linkages between women community leaders in the eight Saarc states – the challenges, opportunities and recommendations to engage micro voices from the alliance at the macro level, and the role women at the grassroots level can play in conflict resolution.
Recommendations to promote connectivity within the alliance included a contact network circulated throughout the Saarc countries, exposure visits for community leaders, a newsletter, the division of Sawa into thematic areas such as political participation and peace building, grassroots level women caucuses and Saarc-level advocacy campaigns with the same objectives and launched simultaneously in member countries.
A short documentary film featuring activists from Saarc countries, titled ‘A Wave in the Ocean’, and a presentation on ‘Women and Peace Building in South Asia’ by Nazish Brohi were also shown. The conference will conclude on Wednesday, Jan 18.
Published in Dawn, January 18th, 2017