Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Listening to "what the women say"



Was at a meeting this morning organised by FOKUS Women and the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) by virtue of the fact that I am a Board Member of ONUR. The meeting was conceptualised around the FOKUS Women publication Reconciling Sri Lanka, what the WOMEN say which is an interesting compilation of case studies of 30 women’s views on reconciliation. The agenda included testimonies from some of the women who  featured in the book, but also interventions from government  officials and a minister and some poetry and songs from women who had been directly  affected by  the war. Present at the meeting were four women parliamentarians, some members of the diplomatic corps including the High Commissioner of South Africa in Sri Lanka, women from different age and ethnic groups from  different parts of the country and  from different walks of life. 

The meeting would not have achieved anything had it not had simultaneous translation allowing everyone to speak in either English, Sinhala or Tamil.  The case studies were also published in all three languages, and FOKUS Women Director , Shyamala Gomez went into great pains to explain that  the case studies were shared with the  women in the language that was used when they were being interviewed for verification, so that there was a high level of verification, and no gatekeeping.  Well done FOKUS Women!  I am sure others will   follow suit.

What struck me most during the discussions was the chasm between women’s lived realities and the perceptions of the institutional actors in the room.  Sri Lankan governance is awash with good policies, the most recent being the National Reconciliation Policy, but there was no sense that these policies were being implemented.  The women talked about lack of transparency and trackability of government activity and decision making, the political manouvering that was detrimental to reconciliation, the elite capture of the reconciliation initiatives and lack of meaningful engagement of women, minorities and people at the grassroots, the continued failure to provide government information in Tamil as well as Sinhalese, issues related to land ownership and housing, the specific problems relating to widows and female headed households, divisive media representation  and the reluctance of political parties to nominate women to contest.  There were several who regretted the disruption of their education by the threat of violence, or forced displacement. For many there was definitely a sense of being excluded   and ‘left behind’.

Mano Ganesan, Minister of National Co-existence Dialogue and Official Languages, came into the meeting for a short while. Proud of his trilingual ability he pointed out to the participants that women comprise more than half the population, are the largest contributors to the economy and have suffered most from war and conflict.  His message was for women to take on political and economic  authority – make the best use of the electoral quotas as well as spearhead civil society movements in the North around issues that they find unacceptable.

Swarna Sumanasekera, Chairperson, National Committee on Women, brought in a very realistic perspective that highlighted some ongoing and planned activities of the Ministry in collaboration with other state institutions while admitting that there were things that needed to be done better. She emphasised that government needed to consult more widely with women when making policy decisions and formulating plans.  She talked about action plans for combatting violence against women and for addressing the issues of female headed households, and about the inclusion of women’s rights issues in the Human Rights Action Plan.  She mentioned the recommendation from the Treasury that 25% of budget allocations at the DS level for rural development should go to benefit women, and the need to follow up quotas for women’s political representation with voter education as well as skills development for current and aspiring female politicians. She admitted to not knowing whether local government institutions followed the 25% budget allocation recommendation of the Treasury and made several references to Ministry initiatives that are monitoring impact.  She seemed to recognise the value of monitoring and evaluation,  a recognition that was absent from the presentations of others. Her several references to Shyamala Gomez’s support suggested that FOKUS Women seems to be making an effort to build the capacity of the women’s machinery.  Well done FOKUS Women!

I left soon after the South African High Commissioner’s intervention that aimed to share some lessons from her country’s experience of reconciliation 22 years ago.  She urged us to see reconciliation not just as a product, but as a continuous process.  She also cautioned against the emphasis on policy. In her opinion policies were necessary but not sufficient to achieve change.  Gender Mainstreaming happens in the context of ‘male-streaming’  - the context is highly patriarchal and we should not underestimate the tenacity and resilience of patriarchy.  She also warned against the language of institutionalisation that can demobilise grassroots movements.  What worked in South Africa was the existence of a coherent media strategy and a common narrative that fostered citizen ownership of the process, capacity building of women that not just provided the survival skills, but skills that helped transform gender relations, a reconciliation barometer that kept track of changes and alliances built with different groups particularly women parliamentarians.


All in all an interesting morning, an opportunity to touch base with some things going on here in Sri Lanka. 


Thursday, 20 July 2017

STI Forum- Co-Chairs Report to the HLPF-what happened to gender equality?

STI Forum Logo - two men pushing cogwheels - 
This last week I received the report of the Co-Chairs of the STI Forum on the SDGs 2017 and followed the presentation to the HLPF on the UN webcasting site.  The STI Forum may not be the only culprits, this could be a general malaise across the whole UN  & SDG system, but I was  disappointed that the report and the presentation of the co-chairs reflected an inability to follow an innovative line  of thinking – despite the rhetoric of transformation,  the repeated references to the interrelatedness of the seventeen goals, the continued emphasis on the need to focus on people,  the importance of ‘leaving no one behind’ and the concern that development activity does not destroy our planet.  There was far too much rooted in the past, in business as usual, and far too little linked to achieving a different kind of future.   As the Secretary General has observed, the 2030 Agenda is “a means to improve the lives of people, communities and societies without harming our planet, and a route to advancing the realization of the economic, cultural, social and political rights for all as well as enabling global peace and security”[1].  Yet, to use a clich├ęd quote attributed to Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking as we used when we created them”.   If for Senor Antonio Guterres  “ the 2030 Agenda is our boldest agenda for humanity”  then to achieve it we need to make bold changes not just in the UN development system as he envisages it, but also in the way development community at large thinks and acts.

The  Co-Chairs’ report is about the discussions of the STI Forum in May this year.  It  mobilised almost 800 participants representing 90 Governments and more than 390 scientists, innovators, technology specialists, entrepreneurs and civil society representatives.[2]  This impressive array of stakeholders included me, a panelist in the session on Goal 1.  And even in New York, the structure of the Forum suggested that there may not be much rethinking of what kind of science, what kind of technology, and what kind of innovation is needed to achieve the ambitions of the 2030 Agenda. On Day 1 we discussed the goals, and on Day 2 we returned to the seductive environment of high technology.  But the report is presented as a Co-Chairs’ summary and I guess this means there has been some gatekeeping and editorial selection in New York.  We panelists were not consulted on the draft (or at least I wasn’t) – not even on how the discussions in our own sessions were presented.  To paraphrase the common disclaimer – the views in the report are those of the STI Forum Secretariat and may not reflect the positions of the participants.

My main criticism about the report is that gender is almost completely ignored in everything except of course, in the discussion on Goal 5.  In an 18-page report the word women appears three times outside the paragraphs on Goal 5, and the word gender just once.  The co-chairs seem to have missed some facts: that women are disproportionately represented among the poor- at least 50% of the people living in poor households in developing countries are women and girls, and in Europe the proportion is higher at 53% (Goal 1); that women have an obvious stake in food security and nutrition of families and most small farmers are women, (Goal 2); that of the 4.3 million people that WHO estimates die prematurely every year from illness caused by household air pollution women and young children, who spend the most time near the domestic hearth, are the most vulnerable (Goal 3).  We could argue that if the report is being true to the discussions, then this omission of gender is merely a reflection of the different sessions.  But I was one of three panelists in the session on Harnessing science, technology and innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals and for ending poverty in all its forms everywhere (Goal 1)[3], and I spoke about women, in fact I ONLY spoke about women.  Why does it read like I have been edited out?

The STI Forum in May, began on an encouraging note. Both the Chair of the UN General Assembly and the Chair of ECOSOC suggested that the discussion on STI should address issues of indigenous knowledge, women and gender equality.  But this was not reflected in the sessions that followed.  Gender equality, as we have seen, is a concept that the STI Community cannot get its head around.  Even the discussion on Goal 5 was narrowly focused on increasing gender parity in STEM[4]  and largely ignored some of the more interesting issues relating to Goal 5 i.e. how does women’s increased participation in STEM change the direction of science, technology and innovation (this question was raised from the floor by a Saudi Arabian woman).  It is 22 years since the Beijing Platform Action saw women not just in their traditional roles, but as producers, and called for them “not only [to] benefit from technology, but also [to] participate in the process from the design to the application, monitoring and evaluation stages”[5], and yet the Forum had no framework for examining how STI could contribute to addressing the problems of gender equality in society or for recognizing that the problems of poverty, food insecurity, farming livelihoods, household air pollution, health, violence (i.e. the goals it was examining) are gendered.  So the right questions were not asked and the discussions suffered as a result.

The STI Forum had no framework to deal with indigenous knowledge either, and the Co-Chairs’ report reflects that.  There is no direct mention of ‘indigenous knowledge’ in the report, but the acknowledgement in paragraph 9 that “Science, technology and innovation derive from diverse sources of knowledge” seemed to be including knowledge systems developed by communities as having value in “the development of technology solutions to sustainable development challenges and in the promotion of evidence-informed decision-making”.  But the next sentence in this paragraph puts paid to any notion of inclusivity by calling on governments to create “national expert panels, consisting of scientists, engineers and other respected individuals, to provide expert knowledge to local effortsand failing to explicitly recognize the women and men who are the bearers of indigenous knowledge.  In my presentation I pointed to the extensive documentation on women’s  traditional knowledge on seeds, but the report only refers to seed and gene banks and the “international property rights can contribute positively to an enabling environment that promotes sustainable development for smallholder farmers” (paragraph 13) despite the mounting evidence that “undervaluing of the substantial contribution of women in the conservation and management of plant genetic resources has weakened plant genetic resource conservation strategies”[6]

Sadly, all of this points to the inability of our global institutions (and the people working in them)  to radically rethink the “kind of science we need” (Heide Hackmann at the HLPF Panel) to achieve the ambitions of the 2030 Agenda.  This paucity of thought is worrying.  There was a large number of young women and men at the Forum and it was clear that they were concerned about the state and direction of development.  It was also clear that we (the ‘oldes’) had in our enthusiasm for economic growth and neo-liberalism all but obliterated the ideas of those 20th century movements of appropriate technology, participatory technology development or indigenous knowledge.  We are now in a world where science, technology and innovation is commodified and subjected to the market, and there are no strong indications from the STI Forum discussions on whether or how we should be changing direction if we are to include those who are currently excluded as well as protect the planet.  The report does not even refer to the ‘circular economy’ which is now becoming a mainstream concept with its own market.  The young peoples’ concern was reflected in the presentation of the spokesperson for the UN Major Group for Children and Youth at the HLPF.  They suggested that, among other things, achieving the SDGs required recognising diverse forms of knowledge, ensuring that all knowledge is considered a global public good and eliminating technology injustice and discrimination in access to technology and its benefits.  But where will the commitment for such an STI agenda come from? 

 The United Nations treaty body system has the mandate to ensure that States make it happen, not least because the right of everyone, without discrimination, to benefit from scientific progress is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the International Convenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, and other instruments of the Human Rights system both at a global level and a regional level. The Technology Facilitation Mechanism’s[7]  responsibility to facilitate multi-stakeholder  collaboration and partnership must include linking with the UN’s Human Rights Bodies  and working with them.



[1]https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2017-07-05/secretary-generals-remarks-economic-and-social-council-repositioning
[2]  Multi-stakeholder forum on science, technology and innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals – Note by the Secretariat.  ECOSOC E/HLPF/4  31 May 2017
[5] Beijing Platform for Action, paragraph 75
[6] Pablo Eyzaguirre, International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, in Mario E. Tapia and Ana De la Torre (1998)Women Farmers and Andean Seeds