‘Step it up for gender equality’ was one among the many commitments renewed at the third South Asian Speakers Summit on Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) implementation, convened by the International Parliamentary Union and Sri Lanka’s Parliament in Colombo, July 11-12, 2018.
Accounting for 39.4 percent of Asia’s population (almost half of this population consisting of women) and projected gross domestic product (GDP) increases, South Asia is one of the fastest growing regions on the planet. Ironically, it has declining employment rates, largely affecting women.
South Asia ranks second—lowest on the 2017 Global Gender Gap Index. Women’s mean labour force participation rate is 40 percent and national parliamentary representation ranges from 5.8 to 29.5 percent. This is quintessentially grounded in gendered roles and norms privileging men in the public sphere of governance and economy over women in the privacy of domesticity, where ‘women’s’ unpaid care work mediates the low value of all their work and relative exclusion from development. Private and public violence against women and girls is pervasive, demonstrating male power and control.
Addressing this has normative women’s rights imperatives embedded in commitments to international instruments and the SDGs. The latter’s twin-focus on gender goal 5 and mainstreaming gender across other goals promotes sustainable human development.
Analysis suggests that South Asia’s overall GDP gain from closing gender gaps in economies would approximate 25 percent; women’s unique socially-determined resources enhances inclusivity of political and socio-economic decision-making and company profits; eliminating violence against them establishes humane, safe, productive societies.
Effective parliaments are markers of democratic and accountable governance. In their legislative, oversight, including budget-oversight and representative functions, parliaments are striving to improve SDG implementation and thus ‘leaving no one behind’. For instance, 29.5, 27.7, 20 and 21 percent of Nepal, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan parliamentarians, respectively, are women – among the highest in South Asia, following electoral quotas.
Thirty three percent of seats in Nepal’s Constituent Assembly were reserved for women. The ‘knock-the-door’ campaign led by Jan Sahas, supported by UN Women, saw manual scavengers visiting homes of Indian parliamentarians urging response to their dire needs. Parliamentarians raised these in subsequent sessions, leading to the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, covering India’s 600,000 scavengers, 95 percent being women.
Following reform of the election law in 2016 (further amended in 2017) by the Sri Lankan Parliament, providing 25 percent quotas for women in local government, women’s representation increased from 1.9 percent to almost 25 percent in the February 2018 elections.
The constitutional reform process initiated in Sri Lanka resulted in a Public Representations Committee Report on Constitutional Reforms, incorporating CSO-UN Women submissions recommending equitable representation of women at all decision-making levels, quotas at election nomination and in Parliamentary Committees, among others.
The Sri Lanka women parliamentarians’ caucus supported by UN Women prepared a separate submission to the Constitutional Assembly, submitted by the Women and Child Affairs Minister. Indian parliamentarians across party lines facilitated by UN Women have been discussing the annual Union budget from a gender perspective immediately after release.
Parliaments must transcend bottlenecks to implementing a gender agenda that will address the lack of women parliamentarians, dearth of political will and expertise, the importance of adherence to party discipline and other inadequate policies, operating procedures, gender-based mechanisms, discriminatory attitudes and inadequate links with women’s CSOs and constituencies.
Existing good practice must be enhanced to ensure a critical mass of influential women parliamentarians through electoral gender quotas and strengthened gender capacities of all elected representatives. This involves taking account of women’s and men’s different concerns, from various marginalized groups – even in ‘neutral’ terrains like infrastructure or macroeconomics. It needs tailored CEDAW-compliant interventions informing all stages of policy and legislative processes, including budget allocations, revenue generation and their gender impacts.
Policies and operating procedures should call for: gender mainstreaming in all parliamentary work and functions, parliamentary plans, establishing parliamentary committees on women and girls with formal remit, institutionalized links with gender advocates and constituencies to source information, explore violations and press for redress.
Gender caucuses across sex and party lines and intentional engagement with male champions, technical gender units in parliament can strengthen the gender agenda. Finally rules or lack thereof, on sitting hours, child-care, respectful conduct in-session would further enrich women’s participation.
(Dr. Jean D’Cunha is Head - UN Women Myanmar on special assignment as Senior Advisor to UN Women Multi Country office for India, Bhutan, the
Maldives and Sri Lanka)