Arjun Bahadur Thapa


January 12, 2017

Arjun Bahadur Thapa

Secretary General of SAARC

Contributor Uday Nagaraju met in Nepal His Excellency Arjun Bahadur Thapa, Secretary General of SAARC, and discussed SAARC’s objectives, achievements and goals in gender equality and women’s empowerment. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is a Regional intergovernmental organization and geopolitical union of nations in South Asia. Its Member States include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, the Maldives, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

According to its charter, one of the founding principles of SAARC is awareness of common problems, interests and aspirations of the people of South Asia and the need for joint action and enhanced cooperation. There are a number of gender specific issues that are common across most Member States serving as barriers to girls’ education. These include early marriage, sexual harassment/eve teasing, malnutrition and the low proportion of women teachers resulting in low number of girls progressing to higher levels of education.  Education of girls plays a pivotal role in achieving gender equality. How are member states co-operating to address this issue? What role is SAARC playing in addressing this issue?   

On 11th May 2016 in New Delhi, the SAARC nations agreed on setting up a uniform child helpline in the region even as India offered support to South-Asian countries in expanding and upgrading their child helpline services to check violence against children.

The decision was taken during the three-day meeting of the South Asia Initiative to End Violence Against Children (SAIEVAC). The ministers and delegates from SAARC nations agreed to cooperate on information, communication and technology initiatives to trace missing children on the lines of Track Child and Khoya Paya missing child tracking web sites.

In addition, under the SAARC education 2030 agenda, it was proposed to organise regional consultations for the formulation of policies and strategies as well as partnerships among SAARC Member States to ensure lifelong learning opportunities for all – children, youth and adults - from early childhood care and education to tertiary education. It was agreed, among others, to: 

  1. Review the policies, strategies and plans designed to promote education of out-of-school children in the primary and lower secondary education groups and to identify, document and share promising practices and innovations that have contributed to addressing common challenges;
  2. Review the policies, strategies and programmes to promote adult learning and education and to identify, document and share promising practices and innovations that have contributed to improvement in youth and adult literacy rates.
  3. Organise regional consultations for formulating policy responses and programmatic interventions for reducing the number of out-of-school children in SAARC Member States which have relatively larger number of out-of-school children in primary and lower secondary school age group.
  4. Also, establish a mechanism for collaboration among institutions in SAARC Member States engaged in open and distance learning initiative to make gender balance on education sector.

The three-year Action Plan adopted by the SAIEVAC Governing Board amply addresses the issues of domestic violence; sexual harassment and child marriage.  The Member States are required to take necessary measures to overcome these problems.

During the Seventeenth SAARC Summit, the Inter-governmental Expert Group proposed to constitute Gender Policy Advocacy Group (SAARC- GPAG) to drive regional movement forward for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, in line with relevant regional and international commitments and Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) Concluding Observations. Can you explain the work of SAARC- GPAG and its achievements?

The first meeting of SAARC-GPAG was held in Islamabad, Pakistan from 26-27 July 2015 and the Group identified the various thematic issues of common interest under Key Priorities for GPAG for the three years Action Plan. These priority areas are: 

  1. Women in leadership and decision making
  2. Economic Empowerment of Women
  3. Violence against Women and girls
  4. Health issues

The Group also recommended SAARC Secretariat to develop a detailed Action Plan for the next three years, with technical assistance from a Gender Specialist. The Action Plan has now been developed and will be put up for further discussion and approval in the second meeting of the SAARC GPAG. Once endorsed by the higher bodies, all the Member States will implement this Action Plan.           

In the meanwhile, this Action Plan has been endorsed by the SAIEVAC Governing Board. The SAIEVAC Secretariat has approached all the Member States to align their national plans of action with the proposed regional Plan of Action. 

In most of the member countries of SAARC, incidents of domestic violence and sexual harassment are punishable by the existing laws. Child marriage is discouraged in all the Member States of SAARC, while there are still cases of child marriage, in particular, in remote areas of the region.

Equitable participation of women in politics is a key factor in achieving overall gender equality. Aggregating the Inter –Parliamentary Union figures for number of women in each parliament, SAARC states seem to have a combined 472 women MPs in lower or single house out of a total  2434 MPs corresponding  to 19.39% which is  lower compared to world average of 23.0%, and demographics -combined female population in SAARC member states is around 48.6%. What measures need to be taken to achieve the balance?

As a priority area of the SAARC Gender Policy Advocacy Group, the 3-year Action Plan recommends a set of actions to be taken at the regional level and also at the national level. These will include some action points such as;

  • Dialogue and meetings with different political parties and parliamentarians regarding political participation of women in the region
  • Systematic and Institutionalized leadership skills training for women in the SAARC region (e.g. in the South Asian University)
  • Production of publications, reports, methodologies and tools as well as good practices from the region on women’s leadership and political participation including mechanisms and good practices that promote women’s role in decision-making.
  • Work with activists and experts including media to develop and implement awareness creation and advocacy programs for the general public, head of parties and parliamentarians to build their commitment towards inclusive representation of women and taking action to ensure that at least one-third (33%) of all seats are allocated to women
  • Develop/adapt guidelines for leadership and capacity development to encourage women to engage politically and increase their representation in political parties and their decision making bodies on all levels
  • Launch a SAARC region-wise campaign to combat violence against women in politics
  • Collect information and data to develop evidence informed campaign (via social & traditional media) about issues related to political participation of women, for inclusive representation in politics, and ensure women’s fair access to political spheres.

As per the newly adopted constitution of Nepal, the women’s representation at the Parliament should be at 33%.