I could squander my meager word quota on a miserable litany of evils but I will not. Let me instead list a few regional positives and identify a few points of joint action on issues that fall within the very broad rubric, “Gender in South Asia.”
“Gender in South Asia” is not a static, stagnant tableau; small, incremental changes add up. My observations follow, in no particular order. First, the women’s movement across the region has survived generational change and more than once. We have gone from seeking social reform and/or education to political activism within anti-colonial movements to agitating for new laws and regimes to structural critiques to personal politics and intersectionality, each representing a historical moment and the temperament of a generation. This means, the women’s rights discourse is now a part and parcel of politics. The second change is that now more than ever, we are seeing an attempt to make ‘gender’ mean more than just ‘women.’ Beyond feminist meetings and seminars, we are beginning to understand that patriarchy has an impact on everyone. The take-everyone-along and work-in-coalition approach is becoming mainstream. The third change is that the deafening silence around sexual and gender-based violence is being eroded. Outrage against certain categories of violence has encouraged reporting; the higher numbers in turn draw media and public attention. We now seem to agree that sexual and gender-based violence are wrong although our concession comes with a thousand qualifiers and hesitations. Still, it represents incremental progress from not-seeing. The fourth change is that a small but growing number of us are learning to see women’s agency in the most dire circumstances. Related, we have built into a norm the idea that enabling, facilitating and promoting such agency is a social good. Women no longer have to be relegated to passivity and victimhood in other people’s stories. The fifth change is that while misogynistic speech remains common, more and more (ordinary?) people find it repugnant. That may not be consistent with their own speech and practice, but it constitutes a beginning.
The fact I choose to list five qualified positives in the face of a stringent word limit hints that a litany would need many more words. But what would be the point of such a dirge? I would rather take the misery as a given, explore the potential of the positives and then ask what a community like RCSS has to offer this journey of change. More broadly, what are the areas in which regional—non-official but also official—cooperation could assist in the quest for gender equality?
- Network-building—the premise of RCSS’ founding—and one of my organisation’s mandates—for gender equality, that is inclusive of large and small, capital-based and peripheral groups.
A cursory survey of regional initiatives—for gender equality or anything else–shows they are largely confined to a small number of individuals and organisations whose ties have been reinforced in the last two decades, creating a somewhat closed epistemic community. Mapping the actual field of work and opening up this community to build a larger network is the next step.
- Resource-sharing across borders.
We associate ‘resource’ with money, but work for gender equality or any other cause, requires other resources too—people, ideas, information and even materials like videos or posters or street threatre scripts. Digitised repositories with easy access are the next frontier for advocacy and public education.
- Research and advocacy on regional norms and conventions relating to gender equality.
There are official policies that relate to specific women’s issues but there is still room for concerted advocacy for regional conventions and norms on gender equality that we can take and use seriously. These efforts must straddle public, civil society and state realms in order to be meaningful—too often, we talk in mutually exclusive circles.
- Regional approaches to transnational and transregional concerns.
Despite our diversity, there are issues we can seek common ground on—trafficking, the rights of migrant workers abroad, for instance.
- Protection networks for Women Human Rights Defenders.
Those who defend the rights of women and gender minorities are under threat in this age of extremist thinking. Is it possible for us to support and shelter within the region, those who need to leave home for political reasons?
In the 1980s and 1990s, global foundations financed non-official multilateral and regional initiatives and put in place the early institutional infrastructure of civil society cooperation in what Himal calls ‘Southasia.’ That infrastructure has acquired its own way of functioning that does not entirely reflect the world of 2016 and the institutions in its orbit have spawned their own regional elite. We are however in an age where information technology enables any citizen to intervene proactively. I leave you then with this question: As a member of the RCSS community, in which of the above five ways will you personally commit to intervene for gender equality?
Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist and founder of The Prajnya Trust, Chennai. She likes to remind people that she was at the RCSS founding meeting in Kandy in 1993.