The concept of networks to carry forward an agenda or cause is recognised today as an important strategy for initiating political, economic and social change. Access to the internet has made networking swift and effective eliminating boundaries of culture, locality and space. No longer do we need drummers, town criers and posters to spread our [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Addressing human need rather than human greed

Prof. Savitri Goonesekere delivered the keynote address at the 5th Annual Conference of the South Asia Women’s Network (SWAN) Colombo, on ‘A rights based approach to sustainable development’. Published here are extracts.

The concept of networks to carry forward an agenda or cause is recognised today as an important strategy for initiating political, economic and social change. Access to the internet has made networking swift and effective eliminating boundaries of culture, locality and space. No longer do we need drummers, town criers and posters to spread our messages. Your network provides an important opportunity for women professionals in our richly diverse region to work together, brain storm and communicate new thoughts and ideas to address critical issues of concern for women.

South Asia continues to face significant challenges in achieving the agenda of your organisation – “Gender Equity for Peace and Sustainable Development for Women of South Asia”. Globalisation has offered us all an opportunity for connectivity, economic transformation and infrastructure development. The ubiquitous high rise buildings have become the norm for infrastructure development, creating cities in our region which all look very similar, eliminating the beauty and diversity of each nation’s architectural heritage. Yet we have been hardly successful in forging a common ideology and consensus on the concept of a human rights based approach to development that can impact to improve the quality of life of all our people. 
It is useful to reflect on the term “sustainable development”.

Prof. Savitri Goonesekere delivering the keynote address. Pic by Susantha Liyanawatte

This is a concept of international and national environmental law relevant for both women and men in our region. It resonates with and reinforces international and constitutional law norms relating to the sovereignty of peoples and inclusive citizenship. Both Human Rights and Environmental Law recognise the state and government authorities as trustees of our national resources which must be used for the benefit of all the people in our countries without discrimination on the grounds of sex, ethnicity, religion and other factors such as economic disadvantage and poverty. Mahatma Gandhi is reported to have said that “the earth has enough to satisfy human need, but not human greed”. People centred sustainable and inclusive development requires governments and non-state actors in the corporate sector to share a commitment to addressing human need rather than human greed.

Realising such a concept of sustainable and inclusive development poses numerous challenges in our region of South Asia which has failed to address issues of disparity and discrimination decades after independence. Many of our countries have yet to provide access to the basic needs your organisation focuses on – health, education, food security, decent work as defined in ILO standards, access to productive assets and livelihoods. These are basic needs, essential to improve the quality of life of both women and men. What is even more disturbing, a strong evidence base has emerged to indicate that economic growth in our region has not merely failed to eliminate disparities; it has, rather, entrenched and increased them. Economists speak of the phenomenon of “jobless growth” in Asia. The distinguished economist and philosopher Amartya Sen has in his recent work highlighted with statistics the deep divide between the disadvantaged people living in poverty, and those who have benefited from the phenomenal economic growth witnessed in a country like India.

We need to examine our political, economic and social context and ask ourselves whether these disparities continue as institutionalised dimensions of our societies, because governments and important non-state economic actors like the corporate sector have failed to follow the path of sustainable development.

A distinguished Sri Lankan judge of the International Court of Justice, Judge Weeramantry once defined sustainable development as a core and binding norm of the law of nations. He emphasised that economic growth cannot be pursued to such a point where it causes substantial damage to the environment and the people’s right to national resources, for these are resources of the people, and not of governments or their economic partners. The public trust doctrine and the right of the people to demand that national resources are used for the public good make governments accountable to preserve the environment and implement the human rights of the people.

Sustainable development links to international human rights and our constitutional norms and standards on the rights of the people, including gender equality. They clarify that an economic growth agenda of government must also respect, protect and fulfil the rights of the people to civil liberties and socio economic rights. These rights are guaranteed and or embedded in Constitutions and international treaties that the state has ratified. We see today a growing disregard of these imperatives on the argument of fast forwarding economic growth.

SWAN’s work has rightly clarified that development agendas like the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) must not be interpreted by governments and policy makers to lower the benchmark of accountability to the people in development. Goal 3 of the Empowerment of Women is meaningless unless it is interpreted holistically to eliminate gender bias, and gender gaps in all the areas of concern which deny women equal citizenship in their countries. Organisations like SWAN with a regional and diverse professional membership can help create an understanding of the need for inclusive sustainable development and a rights based approach to economic growth and development, especially through your networking with the corporate sector. Both the state and non-state actors must be held accountable for linking the rights of the people to inclusive citizenship, with their agenda of economic growth.

If such a balanced approach is adopted, the gender gaps and disparities between women and men that have persisted through centuries and decades in our region can be reduced and eliminated in all the sectors that SWAN has identified for interventions. This approach is also critical in order to combat the power of fundamentalist religious and cultural lobbies in all our countries. They seek to denigrate the concept of achieving equal rights and life chances for women. These ideologies which seek to promote intolerance and a false cultural consciousness even undermine the gains that women’s movements and activists in our countries have helped to put in place through legal reform, social policies and financing in areas considered to be in the public interest. For instance laws, policies and programmes to prevent impunity and address gender based violence including domestic violence and violence in situations of armed conflict, providing equal rights to land and economic opportunity represent substantial gains for women in our countries. They are undermined by these fundamentalist movements seeking to enthrone a single identity and an unchanging concept of culture in a region of rich diversity with a long history of political, economic and social transformation. If we do not hold our governments accountable to check these disruptive forces, gender disparities will not only remain they will be reinforced and spread into the very areas where women have achieved some gains.

Vigilance in these areas must be a part of a women’s rights agenda, since complacency can be a barrier to achieving progress. For instance Sri Lanka has achieved much for women, with strong social indicators, better than in most countries of our region. This is largely due to visionary policies on health and education that were put in place decades ago and sustained. However the early promise of equality has not been realised fully, partly because of complacency and unwillingness to proactively address persistent gender gaps that have not been eliminated. We have failed to address impunity and violence against women, the continuing gender gaps in employment and access to productive assets, and the abysmally low representation of women in all legislative bodies and in political participation and governance. Gender gaps and disparities impact on the day to day lives of over 51 % of women among the people in all our countries. This necessarily undermines progress in achieving inclusive and sustainable development. As the late economist Mahbub Ul Haq of Pakistan pointed out many years ago “development that is not engendered is endangered”.

It is in this context that the UN Women’s Rights Convention (CEDAW) Committee has pointed out the importance of achieving a norm of “gender equality” rather than “gender equity”. For equity is often interpreted as a subjective standard of fairness and manipulated to perpetuate disparity in the name of culture and religious identity. A standard of gender equality goes beyond a discretionary standard of fairness, and can be measured in outcomes and indicators to address and eliminate gender gaps. We need to respect the richness and diversity of our cultures in South Asia. We must not permit governments and other lobbies to manipulate that diversity to perpetuate inequality against women in general, or women of different ethnic and religious communities.

SWAN’s focus on Art, Literature and Media, and the creation of a free information environment to realise an agenda of gender equality, peace and development is a novel dimension of your work which has special relevance at this time. Media is today a tool that can be used to promote human wellbeing or transmit divisive messages of intolerance, discrimination and gender inequality. A free information environment that permits access to public documents and decision making created through a Right to Information Act is also essential to good governance. Sri Lanka is one of the few countries in South Asia that does not have such legislation, and this meeting is an opportunity to share comparative experience on the right to information and disparity reduction. 

There is also an increasing tendency to undervalue the importance of promoting human values and creative and critical thought as objectives of education. Providing access to information and technology and an over focus on IT and creating “knowledge hubs” emphasise the only relevance of education and knowledge to achieve “market” needs. Promoting knowledge is identified exclusively with acquisition of IT skills, encouraging attitudes in policy making that dismiss the disciplines of humanities, social science and the arts, except to perpetuate political messages. And yet employability of a person in any important capacity must surely depend on that person’s capacity to sift information, think creatively and form objective independent opinions and judgements. The undermining of disciplines other than science and technology is as much a threat to eliminating disparities including gender disparities as the erosion of human rights and government accountability to ensure inclusive and sustainable development. Our region has produced great thinkers, philosophers, writers, artists and craftsmen. Collectively, they remind us that “in learning lies not merely information but knowledge” and that knowledge must become the essential path to human wisdom.

Civil society, including women’s groups, are sometimes perceived as a threat rather than a national development resource. Yet organisations like yours are important in working towards an ideal of sustainable inclusive development that places people’s needs and rights including women’s right to equality at the heart of national plans and policies on development. 
A beautiful Buddhist text written in the Pali language, originally from India, has been included in the concluding paragraph of Sri Lanka’s Constitution. It occurs to me sometimes that it should have been placed there as a first paragraph to remind our government and people of the synergy between human wellbeing and good governance and accountable use of national resources.

The Pali text says:
Phitobhavatu loco ca
Raja bhavatudhammiko”
In the English translation:
“May the rains fall in season
May there be wellbeing in the world
May the ruler be righteous”

In contemporary language and idiom we can interpret righteousness as commitment to good governance and development that prioritises the sovereign rights of the people. May the deliberations at this meeting inspire you to respond to the realities of our region and help governments and people to understand the relevance and meaning of a people’s rights based approach committed to gender equality and inclusive sustainable development.

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