Q. What is the reasoning behind the SWAN- South Asia Women’s Network- and how is it different to other programmes aimed at the development of women and their position in society?
I was a career diplomat and this is a programme that I created, and conceptualised once I began lecturing at the University (Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi). I was the High Commissioner in Bangladesh, I was High Commissioner in Malaysia, I did a posting in Nepal and I have been in Colombo before, I was here for the Non-Aligned Summit. Basically I am very committed to regional cooperation in South Asia; it is a passion for me, because I feel like South Asia as a region has tremendous historical links. Historically, if you look at it all of us prospered, because of this strong regional cooperation. Especially in the pre-colonial period, because colonialism broke us up and divided us into little units. However in the pre-colonial time we saw trade, religion and culture as the three motifs for cooperation—and it worked really well, it was of mutual benefit to everyone.
'There are two things i noticed about the women of South Asia; firstly, they have achieved a lot individually—there are heads of State, political leaders and business leaders, also they are very important in the family.'
There are two things i noticed about the women of South Asia; firstly, they have achieved a lot individually—there are heads of State, political leaders and business leaders, also they are very important in the family. However we have not achieved very much as a collective, across South Asia women are very weak as a group. For instance, in certain places you have very good education yet participation of women in the workforce if very low; in other areas the education of women is very low. And then, when they have the education—what about the conditions of work? There are all these issues. We address all these issues through eight sectors; Microcredit; Education; Arts and Literature; Women in Peacemaking; Environment; Health; Crafts and Textiles and Media, because we thought that this is a good way to bring the women of South Asia together.
Q. We have had two female Heads of State, yet our representation of women in parliament is very low. Why do you think this has happened?
I think what I would focus on is getting women at the grass-roots level ready to take on the responsibility. This is done through education, making them aware about health issues, environmental issues and how local self-government should work and how it does work.
SWAN looks at the grass-roots level, because we know that at the highest level when women are given jobs they do well or women get elected to the highest offices in government. My appeal is to the whole of society, to men and women; because my argument is that men and women have to work together. There is no exclusion here; we are talking about inclusive government and financial access for all. The reason we are focusing on women is because they are the ones who are being excluded.
If there is an issue in the representation of women in parliament; then yes quotas is a way out. However what I am saying is even when you want to fill the quotas the women have to be prepared; otherwise they will get to government and then underperform.
Q. With reference to what you said about opportunities being applicable to only 5 per-cent of the population; South Asia has this problem when it comes to the urban and rural populations. Because women in the urban areas have greater access to networks like SWAN where you have these conferences in the city and they are organised by a certain group of people, whereas the rural woman is disadvantaged. How does SWAN reach out to the rural population?
I am a person who is firmly convinced that agricultural development must be given equal importance. It has been accepted all over South Asia that urbanisation is “the” method of development and modernity—it is not. The truth is that the rural areas must be developed equally. In this situation women are again disadvantaged; because their men come to work in the city, and they are left to care for the family and do all the physical work associated with agriculture—however they cannot take ownership of their work because the land is written in the man’s name.