An Executive Summary of SWAN 5th Annual Conference held in Colombo, Sri Lanka

Conference Colombo, Sri Lanka - 2nd September 2013

The Fifth Annual Conference of the South Asia Women's Network (SWAN), dedicated to the theme "Gender Equity for Peace and Sustainable Development for the Women of South Asia", was supported with US $50,000 from South Asia Foundation-India (SAF-India).  About 100 delegates from SAARC Countries and Myanmar participated in the Conference.  The Conference was inaugurated by Hon. Basil Rajapaksa, Minister for Economic Development, Sri Lanka.



Executive Summary

SWAN’s Colombo Declaration:The Roadmap for Sustainable Development for the Women of South Asia


issued in Colombo on 24th August 2013

at SWAN’s Fifth Annual Conference



The South Asia Women's Network (SWAN) held its Fifth Annual Conference, on the theme "Gender Equity for Peace and Sustainable Development for the Women of South Asia", in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on August 23 and 24, 2013. This Conference, with the participation of women leaders, academics, experts, activists and media representatives from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, was organised in partnership with the Sri Lanka Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce (WCIC), Colombo, with the support of the South Asia Foundation (SAF India) and Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi.


SWAN recognises the common problems that women of South Asia face, irrespective of their religious beliefs and ethnicities.  These include poverty, poor maternal and child health, low educational achievements and illiteracy, violence, social injustice, economic discrimination, lack of ownership or inadequate control over resources, tremendous vulnerability during and after environmental disasters and armed conflicts. Equally, SWAN recognizes that the ongoing and overlapping financial, economic and ecological crises have seriously weakened the capacity of individual governments to overcome these problems.


SWAN agrees that even though the UN’s Millennium Development Goal (MDG) targets made some contribution to change, the inability of the MDGs to take a holistic approach, or to go beyond the growth-oriented model of development to address issues of inequality, has led to the persistence of these crises, and has failed to address the problems faced by women.


In this context, SWAN emphasizes that gender equality and gender equity, women’s rights and women's empowerment are central and fundamentally important, even a prerequisite for bringing in sustainable development through the post-2015 Development Agenda, and should therefore be included as a stand-alone goal, as well as a cross-cutting priority in each SDG (Sustainable Development Goal).




SWAN’s vision is to achieve sustainable development for South Asia, where women play equal and equitable roles with men in the socio-political, economic, technological and environmental sectors. SWAN believes in gender equality, justice, respect, dignity, and inclusive and democratic governance at the individual, family, community, society, national and regional levels.


SWAN’s mission is to ensure a sustainable future for all through collective civil society action with women taking the lead in supporting and promoting a new paradigm of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that recognizes the centrality of women’s role and women’s rights in finalizing the post-2015 Development Agenda. The focus of SWAN’s mission is to establish


  • a New Socio-political Order based on democratic and inclusive governance for a just, equal and equitable society, ensuring peace within and across nations;


  • A New Ecological Order that respects our planet and is based on sustainable production, consumption, lifestyles and livelihoods; 


  • a New Economic Order that supports sustainability through social justice and equity, protects the ecological balance and creates economic sufficiency.


SWAN’s strategy for bringing in sustainable development for the women of South Asia is based on developing partnerships across South Asia to make policy recommendations, nurture leadership and build capacity for change. SWAN’s strategy for implementation is through intervention programmes (IPs) in identified sectors, that create consensus among the women of South Asia on policy recommendations The (IPs) will be the building blocks towards implementing SWAN’s Roadmap for Sustainable Development for the women of South Asia. SWAN works through eight sectoral networks, also called SWANs, dealing with the Environment; Arts and Literature; Women in Peacemaking; Health, Nutrition and Food Sovereignty; Education; Crafts and Textiles; Finance, Livelihoods and Entrepreneurship Development; and Women in Media.   These networks will be grouped to work on intervention programmes that will lead to socio-political, economic and ecological sustainability.

The SWAN structure for implementation is outlined in the Roadmap for Sustainable Development for the Women of South Asia.





South Asia is richly endowed with an ancient cultural, spiritual, intellectual and civilizational heritage, combined with a young population that can yield tremendous demographic advantage. Yet, many countries in the region are faced with low human development indices, and deep structural and socio-cultural conflict.  SWAN, convinced that patriarchy and the discrimination and non-participation of our women is at the core of this situation, seeks to empower the women of South Asia to enable them to realize their full potential as equal citizens in their respective countries.


SWAN’s New Socio-Political Order emphasizes (with corresponding IPs) :


  • enhancing women’s capacity to lead and to play a constructive role in decision-making and governance at all levels, including increasing women’s political participation and grassroots political activism (IP on ‘Democratic and Inclusive Good Governance for Gender Equality and Sustainable Development in South Asia’);
  • strengthening women’s role and participation in peacemaking and conflict-resolution processes, finalising the South Asia Women’s Peace Charter, and addressing the particular needs of conflict-affected women and children (IP on ‘Peace and Sustainable Development in South Asia : Strengthening Women’s Role in Peacemaking and Conflict Resolution’);
  • a social order that eliminates violence against women (VAW) in all its forms and manifestations, including the trafficking of women and children and the difficulties faced by women in the process of international labour migration. SWAN will focus on changing societal mindsets, and the perception of violence against women as a ‘private matter’ in the process of implementing legislation and working on improving women’s access to justice (IP on ‘Elimination of Violence Against Women in South Asia’);
  • the policy commitment by all South Asian governments to the education of the girl child and to maintaining an appropriate level of state investment in all levels of education, including adult education for women, development of school and college curriculum that mainstreams gender issues, avoids gender stereotyping and provides knowledge on youth sexuality and an educational environment that has appropriate facilities for girls and boys and is free from harassment (IP on ‘Gender and Education in the Context of Sustainable Development Goals for the Women of South Asia’);
  • the preservation of the cultural diversity of the region and the implementation of development strategies that are culturally sensitive, but which do not reinforce patriarchal norms; recognising that the preservation of and promotion of cultural values, one of the four pillars of Gross National Happiness, must be included among the SDGs for the post-2015 Development Agenda (IP on ‘Culture and Sustainable Development for the Women of South Asia’)
  • encouraging electronic and social media to promote women’s empowerment, and support women’s issues including the elimination of gender based violence; capacity building of mid-career and junior journalists to strengthen support for the centrality and significance of women’s role in the process of sustainable development; building opinion among owners and viewers to ensure media content that does not stigmatise, victimize or portray women as sex objects (IPs on Role of Women in Media in South Asia’).




SWAN’s objective in proposing the New Ecological Order is to ensure the most effective and equitable balance between development, human well-being and environmental sustainability. SWAN emphasizes that unlike the MDG 7 that failed to recognize and address women’s issues or to link women’s empowerment as an essential criteria for achieving environmental sustainability, the post-2015 Development Agenda must acknowledge women’s rights as an essential prerequisite for environmental sustainability.  SWAN’s New Ecological Order has the following core goals, with corresponding intervention programmes (IPs) :


  1. 1.      Ensuring food security and food sovereignty within and among the people of South Asia, with particular emphasis on adequate, safe and nutritious food for all women through women-centred, ecologically sustainable production and distribution systems : this will require changing existing intra-family patriarchal systems as well as emerging global structures of corporate control over agriculture through GM crops and patents on seeds. Preserving South Asia’s rich biodiversity is the best way to feed its people : approval of any GM crop in one South Asian country will mean approval for South Asia as a whole, since patented GM crops spread easily among neighbouring regions and countries, causing irreversible genetic contamination and destruction of South Asia's biodiversity (IP on ‘Seed and Food Sovereignty for the women South Asia’);
  2. Acknowledging that women are disproportionately affected by climate change; ensuring equitable access to nature and natural resources for all women, including through the conservation and resilience of ecosystems, ecological cycles and functions, and biodiversity; ensuring that women's rights and concerns are central in the search for adaptation and mitigation strategies in solution of the climate change crisis (IP on ‘Climate Change and Gender Equality for the Women of South Asia’);
  3. Ensuring conditions for prevention of disease and maintenance of good health for the women of South Asia, through addressing, in an integrated and holistic manner, the issues of bio-safety, food and malnutrition, the increase in non-communicable diseases and women’s exposure to the widespread and indiscriminate use of hazardous chemicals (IPs on ‘The Food and Malnutrition Crisis Across South Asia’ and ‘Nutrition, Food and Bio-Safety, and Women’s Health in South Asia’);
  4. 4.      Ensuring equitable access to energy sources for the women of South Asia in ways that are ecologically sustainable, technically and economically viable : the widespread energy poverty across South Asia is characterised by lack of equal and equitable access to energy, with a disproportionately high impact on women and the poor (IP on ‘Energy and Gender Equality for the Women of South Asia’);
  5. 5.      Ensuring adequate and safe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) for the women of South Asia, through ecologically sustainable and equitable harvesting and distribution systems and access to efficient and sustainable disposal systems. South Asia has the largest number of people without access to improved drinking water sources and sanitation, and women suffer enormously more than men as a result of inadequate water and sanitation facilities. All national governments should accept the right to water, sanitation and hygiene as a basic human right and ensure that women are not discriminated against in the provision of WASH facilities. (IP on Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) for the Women of South Asia);
  6. 6.      Creating awareness about the unsustainable ecological impact of the waste generated through mindless consumption and lifestyle patterns, as well as production practices; and about the use and disposal of materials that contain toxic additives that can affect the health of women and their families; while ensuring safe, affordable solutions for waste management, with the focus on providing livelihood opportunities for women and marginalized sections of society. (IP on ‘Converting Waste into Green Jobs and Social Wealth’);
  7. 7.      Strengthening the community response and resilience to natural and man-made disasters, which is critical to reducing conflict and impoverishment when such disasters occur. (IP on ’Strengthening Resilience and Ecological Sustainability by Integration of Environmental Efforts through Community Response to Natural and Human-induced Disasters’).



Despite MDG 3’s focus on women's empowerment, the feminisation of poverty remains entrenched across South Asia. Structural gender discrimination is pervasive in the present economic order, particularly in South Asia. Unless specific and targeted efforts are made to change this, the post-2015 Development Agenda will remain as gender-unequal as the present one. Women will lose out, but so will the overall prospects for socio-economic prosperity and environmental sustainability in this region. The link between gender equality and poverty eradication is direct and strong. If gender equality and socio-financial inclusion for women are accepted as major focal points of the New Economic Order in the post-2015 Development Agenda, this will greatly hasten the process of poverty eradication and bring in socio-economic prosperity for all.


 Across South Asia, women's work is overwhelmingly in the unorganized, non-formal sectors of the economy, with poorly paid and precarious jobs, and no social protection or contributory benefits of any kind (such as income security and guaranteed minimum living wage, access to essential services and formal employment-related benefits). Unemployment and underemployment create serious financial barriers to women accessing health care and housing, and makes them more dependent on their families. In addition, there is continuing gender disparity in access to education, particularly at secondary and tertiary levels, access to the job-market, and even in accessing clean water and improved sanitation. Women’s work is systemically devalued. Recognising the economic value of women’s household and reproductive work will increase visibility and recognition of women’s contribution to the national economy. South Asian women are increasingly migrating to work in low skilled low waged occupations. Their remittances have become an important source of national income for some countries, but little has been done to reduce the physical, sexual and labour exploitation at the destination country.


SWAN’s New Economic Order calls for appropriate SDGs that will ensure :


  • Sustainable economies, that move from the focus on mere ‘efficiency’ (the growth-based economic development model) to the focus on ‘sufficiency’ based sustainable development paradigms;
  • Substantial increases in livelihoods for women, through decent work with good remuneration, and environmentally friendly jobs, including in traditional sectors like crafts and textiles;
  • Reduction in the unemployment and underemployment rate for women in the agricultural and non-agricultural sectors;
  • Reliable, steady and easy access to mainstream financial resources (including microfinance) for the women of South Asia, in order to improve their economic opportunities through ownership and control over economic assets, including land and housing;
  • Substantial improvements in the poor health status of the women of South Asia (which reflects gender discrimination right through the life cycle), including through improved rural health services, substantive reduction in maternal and child mortality, and the appropriate use of traditional health systems; 
  • Elimination of the gender pay gap, the strongest indicator of entrenched discrimination and inequality;
  • Substantial increases in upgrading women’s skills, including through access to education, professional training and entrepreneurship development;
  • Acceptance of the pragmatic and practical Gross National Happiness (GNH) approach, which embraces spiritual well-being, mindfulness and material development;
  • Increasing the representation of women in decision-making positions in both the private and public sectors.


In order to create consensus on the appropriate SDGs for the New Economic Order, SWAN has agreed upon Intervention Programmes (IPs) in the following sectors :


(i) The Crafts and Textiles Sector : SWAN’s intervention programmes will focus on empowering women in this largely unorganized and principally rural sector of activity, with the expected outcomes of increasing their earning capacity through better remuneration, improved market access, eco-friendly guidance (natural dyes, waste utilization and management), technical, technological and design inputs. This will strengthen their self-confidence, human dignity and economic self-reliance; and provide a strong impetus for conserving indigenous and traditional knowledge of heritage skills; while demonstrating sustainable development through women’s work. 


(ii) Financial Access for Women’s Empowerment, Economic Growth And Sustainable Development in South Asia : SWAN expresses its serious concern that women have little or no visible economic capital, despite being responsible for creating huge social capital. While participation of women in the labour force has increased, there are still significant gender gaps in participation rates, occupational levels and wages. Women continue to assume the largest share of unpaid work.  Universal access to mainstream financial services needs to be prioritised among the core areas of development. Poor households almost invariably remain outside the purview of formal finance and women from these poor households are doubly disadvantaged.

Financial inclusion interventions in their design assume a space for women to articulate and reflect on their future plans and actions.  These interventions are taking place in the public policy arena where state is leading such interventions. At the same time civil society institutions are also shaping many of these interventions. Several countries have implemented interventions to improve the financial access of poor and marginalised women and their enterprises. 

SWAN, through this Intervention Programme, will focus on sharing of innovations in the institutional design and product development for micro enterprises; sharing of interventions for universal financial inclusion and collaboration between various stakeholders; initiatives in the sphere of capacity building among women for participating in the formal finance sphere; and interfacing livelihood interventions and access to financial services.  


(iii) Maternal, Reproductive and Women’s Health and Gender Concerns


The current economic order promotes the corporatization and privatization of health services, makes health a commodity and health care an enterprise. This has led to the marginalisation of indigenous knowledge and traditional health care systems. SWAN challenges the exploitative nature of this approach to health, and is committed to comprehensive health care that includes all determinants of good health. Through this IP, SWAN will focus on support for health-care policies and programmes that are gender sensitive, culturally appropriate, affordable and accessible, while maintaining quality of care, the dignity of and respect for women, and full distributive justice. Essential and life-saving medicines for maternal, reproductive, women’s health, and for non-communicable diseases, should be made available, and the misuse of medical technology for sex determination, assisted reproductive technologies (e.g. commercial  surrogacy),  and the commercialization  of women’s sexuality  should be eradicated. 

Through this IP, SWAN aims to build capacity among women to take the lead in prioritizing issues for collective action and policy influence; to address newer threats to women’s health; and, by building links with likeminded individuals and organizations across South Asia, to share and exchange knowledge and best practices.


(iv) Secure Livelihoods and Food Sovereignty for Women from the Farm, Forest and Off-Farm Sectors in South Asia : Households in South Asia integrate the opportunities for income, employment and survival at the farm level through a natural process of holistic integration of opportunities around their environment. Commercialization and depletion of natural resources has handed over women’s control over resources and production processes to a market-led system dependent on the corporate sector. SWAN seeks a reversal of this process. Through this IP, SWAN will work for an integrated approach and understanding of the farm-forest-livestock and off-farm nexus in order to achieve improved household economy, food security, food sovereignty and secure livelihoods, which will lead to women-centred local and regional economies in South Asia.


(v) Entrepreneurship Development Among the Women of South Asia : SWAN members are strong in community organizing, community mobilization and building capacity of grassroots women’s networks and organization. Utilizing these skills, and in order to unleash the leadership and entrepreneurial potential of South Asian women, SWAN, through this IP, will create modules for capacity building at all levels in the areas of leadership development, effective communication and negotiation skills, planning, management, monitoring human resource development and work-place employer-employee relationships, financial management, institutional management to deal with the traditional skills of managing small and medium enterprises, as well as value chain analysis and value chain management. 

The second IP, on Developing and Strengthening Sustainable Eco-Tourism Across South Asia, will focus on the tremendous potential of the tourism industry to encourage entrepreneurship among the women of South Asia. This IP will bring together all stakeholders and service providers in a public-private partnership, including nature preserve agencies, craftswomen, and environmental waste management agencies, travel trade and hospitality groups, in the interests of sustainbale eco-tourism.


(vi) Gross National Happiness (GNH) and Sustainable Development for the Women of South Asia : The four pillars of GNH, identified as socio-economic growth and development, preservation and promotion of cultural heritage, conservation of the environment, and good governance, encompass the cultural, socio-economic and ecological interests of all South Asian nations. These are the very issues that SWAN has been emphasizing, as being particularly relevant for ensuring gender equality and equity, women’s rights and women’s empowerment across South Asia. SWAN agrees that the concept of GNH should be factored into the proposed SDGs for the post-2015 Development Agenda. This IP will seek to develop these linkages, and also examine the feasibility of a South Asia Gender Index.


Conclusion : SWAN strongly advocates the inclusion of all members of society, men and boys included, in the striving for sustainable development for the women of South Asia. Sustainable development is common cause for all of us. SWAN’s emphasis is on pointing out that this shared objective is unachievable without the focus on ameliorating the abject condition of women across South Asia. SWAN will work towards inclusive solutions for achieving our objective of sustainable development for the women of South Asia.