Professor Veena Sikri still remembers coming to Colombo in 1976 for the 5th Non-Aligned Summit. Her strongest impression was of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, one woman amidst a sea of men, standing her ground. Veena Sikri will never forget meeting Mrs. Bandaranaike because she knows what it’s like-and what it takes- to be a woman [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Promoting women in a man’s world

A career diplomat, Professor Veena Sikri had seen first hand the issues facing South Asian women so she initiated the South Asia Women’s Conference in bid to improve interaction and inspire action. Duvindi Illankoon reports

Professor Veena Sikri still remembers coming to Colombo in 1976 for the 5th Non-Aligned Summit. Her strongest impression was of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, one woman amidst a sea of men, standing her ground.

Veena Sikri will never forget meeting Mrs. Bandaranaike because she knows what it’s like-and what it takes- to be a woman in a man’s world. A career diplomat for 30 years her extensive travels and postings in various South Asian countries were an eye opener to one common problem in the region. “As individuals the women of South Asia are very strong. They have to be,” she points out. “But as a group we’re just weak.”

Professor Veena Sikri

Professor Sikri used to serve as the Director General for the Indian Council for Cultural Relations-a job that had her travelling the region extensively and meeting people-she says that if her work has taught her one thing it’s the importance of people to people relationships. “Friendship between countries must be friendship between the people of those countries. When I look around South Asia I think one of our biggest problems is that this people to people interaction is just not enough.” Taking two problems and in her own way providing one solution, Professor Sikri initiated the South Asia Women’s Conference in 2009-better known as SWAN.

The first SWAN conference in March ‘09 was graced by Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, and his opening gambit was a real-life example of why empowering women was good economics. Yunus won the Nobel for his work in microfinance; he noted that the smartest thing he did was to “give money to women,” and Professor Sikri agrees. “You give money to a woman and she will be responsible for it. Because if you give something to a woman it goes straight into her family.”

This family-first attitude of any woman in South Asia delights and frustrates her in equal measures. “You look at any family; the woman is always the last. She will eat once everyone is done eating; she never has time to put her feet up. For what? The bulk of women are not in the economic mainstream at all. They have no access to land or livelihoods, no social security.”

These common problems shared by a majority of women in South Asia are what SWAN addresses on one platform. The conference is held annually-this year’s was held just last week at the Kingsbury Hotel for the first time in Sri Lanka (organised by SWAN in partnership with the Women’s Chamber of Commerce in Sri Lanka)

“The conference brings together representatives from all nine South Asian countries,” says Professor Sikri. “We have government reps, people from different women’s organisations in the region…these are people who can carry the conference’ message back to their own countries and people.” And no, they don’t crucify men who dare show up at the conference, she laughs. “Anyone with an interest in women’s affairs is welcome.”

Everyone knows that tackling women’s issues is plain good economics, so why aren’t women in the economic mainstream? “You find that a lot of women are employed in the informal sector,” says Professor Sikri. “It’s impossible to put a price on that.” That’s yet another area of many that they need to tackle.

This year’s conference saw the invited participation of over 100 delegates from the region. They discussed several areas of relevance in women’s affairs covered under sectors of Arts and Literature, Crafts and Textiles, Education, Environment, Health, Nutrition and Food Security, Media, Micro-credit, and Women in Peacemaking. The latter is something that Professor Sikri feels defines a woman’s role in her family. “Women are a force for moderation, they look beyond themselves. And who breaks up a fight? A woman, of course!” she laughs but sobers up before adding, “That’s why domestic violence is such a taboo subject amongst women themselves.”

The Colombo SWAN conference ended with a declaration being made, several points of recommendation amongst them. You might question the effectiveness of a hundred people-from a region that’s occupied by over a billion-assembled in a hotel (far removed from the daily lives of the very women they are meant to provide solutions for), discussing issues that have existed for centuries with no apparent resolve. Professor Sikri, however, is a firm believer in the adage that all good things need to start somewhere. “Our work doesn’t just end with the conference,” she points out. “We take this Colombo Declaration into the South Asian region and individual governments. The message-and recommendations-will then be conveyed to communities in those countries.” To the people who matter, in short.

Delegates rally at 5th Annual SWAN Conference

The 10th floor of the Kingsbury Hotel was abuzz with activity, on the 22nd of August as delegates from all over South Asia rallied together to discuss the challenges faced by South Asian women in terms of energy and sustainable development. This round table discussion was a part of the 5th Annual SWAN Conference held from August 23 and 24. In line with this year’s theme “Gender Equity For Peace and Sustainable Development for the Women of South Asia” the round table discussion focused on the topic “Energy for All in South Asia: What’s at Stake for Women in the Post – 2015 Global Development Agenda”.

The participants included Dr. Veena Sikri; the Convener of SWAN and several distinguished delegates from Sri Lanka and abroad, including several members from SWAN, Practical Action and Dr. Mariyam Shakeel; Minister for Environment and Energy from the Government of Maldives.

The forum focused on the position of women in developing South Asian countries and the issues they face concerning sustainable energy and its consequence on women. In her speech Dr. Vandana Shiva (India) explained how sustainable energy has become a source of conflict emphasising that “women have to pay a very heavy price” when it comes to finding energy. “We need to recognise the multitasking of the rural women” who are faced with the task of finding energy and spending an immense amount of time and energy trying to find and extract it, she said.

Dividing into two groups, they formulated recommendations to the governments of South Asian countries regarding the upliftment of rural women in terms of the energy situation. The day ended on a high note with the recommendations being fine tuned and presented at the inaugural session.


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