By Pragya Narang
Regional peace is a prerequisite for economic growth, as nations that have less conflict with their neighbours have more opportunities for cross-border trade, socio-economic development, and preservation of craft heritage. These were some of the topics of discussion at eShe’s South Asia Union Summit Led by Women on a panel titled “Open for Business: Peace, Economic Growth and Regional Prosperity”.
The panel included Fawzia Naqvi, a US-based Pakistani-origin impact-investment consultant and former vice president, Soros Economic Development Fund; along with Sarita Kumari Sodha, philanthropist, environmental evangelist, peace activist, and director of Ghanerao Hotels, India, who was born in Pakistan and moved to India after marriage; and Darshita Gillies, Indian-origin impact investor, tech entrepreneur and founder of the award-winning Maanch philanthropy platform in UK.
One of the most important points that came up during the panel discussion was that India, Pakistan and other South Asian nations have a shared history of craft and artisanal heritage, which can only survive and thrive if there is free knowledge-sharing and trade across borders.
Moderator of the panel, Suparnaa Chadda, Indian media entrepreneur and founder of the SABERA Awards, opened the session with a recital of the Saraswati Vandana, which she explained invokes the shakti, the goddess of knowledge, to dispel the darkness that resides in our hearts and to illuminate it with wisdom and knowledge.
Chadda also shared her experiences of visiting her father’s birthplace Lahore, Islamabad, and other locations in Pakistan and the warm welcomes she received.
Naqvi, who has previously worked with Women’s World Banking and Citibank New York, narrated anecdotes from her unique experiences as a woman of Pakistan origin who had worked in India for almost a decade funding impact entrepreneurs and working with startups across the country. “The challenge was getting [an Indian] visa and then slowing down my heartbeat as I explained to the immigration officer why I was there in India, and holding my breath until I heard the sound of my passport being stamped,” she narrated.
A member of the investment committee for i2i Venture Fund, which makes early-stage investments in technology-enabled startups in Pakistan, Naqvi also shared the outcome of her work in India.
“I was very proud to grow that portfolio, which has now become a phenomenal investment firm. It was my life’s work and I am so grateful, personally, as well as professionally,” she said. Naqvi believes that South Asia should no longer bear the cost of conflict and expressed her hope that the leaders of both countries stop stoking fear and hate, and work courageously towards peace, dialogue and change instead.
For her part, Sarita Kumari Sodha, who moved from Sindh, Pakistan, to Rajasthan, India, after marriage into the royal family of Ghanerao, narrated her experiences of adjusting to life in a new country that is considered an enemy state of the one she was born in.
She found a sense of hope through South Asia Women’s Network (SWAN), which connected Sodha to women from nine South Asian countries. “We formed great networks and friendships and collaborated on environment, craft, health… We met women working in conflict zones, media, art, and literature from most countries, except Afghanistan recently and Myanmar since the past couple of years,” she said.
Through SWAN, she initiated a cross-border artisanal ‘exchange’ event of 12 women embroiderers from Rawalpindi, Pakistan, with 12 Indian peers from different states of India. The women from Pakistan were mostly widows and orphan girls whose husbands or fathers had been killed by the Taliban. They specialised in varied forms of embroidery – from Hazara work and Pashtun embroidery to shadow-work from Bahawalpur.
The joint workshop and knowledge exchange in Delhi was followed by a 17-day exhibition at Dilli Haat. “Trade is the most important path to sustainable peacebuilding. Until finances and livelihoods are not in the hands of the people, you cannot even exchange ideas or travel,” Sodha said.
She also mentioned another women-led conference on ecotourism at Tarayana in Bhutan, where participants stayed in a hotel owned and operated entirely by women, while interacting with owners of other women-run resorts across South Asia.
Sodha further stressed the need for online visa applications between Indians and Pakistanis, and expressed her desire to see borders between Rajasthan and Sindh, and between both Punjabs, made softer so that people could exchange goods such as onions, sugar and wheat, which was common earlier.
London-based impact investor Darshita Gillies shared anecdotes from her difficult childhood in Mumbai, and how, with education and determination, she managed to rise “from the bottom 1 percent to the top 1 percent”. Once financially secure, she decided to give back to the planet and the entire world, which she considered family.
Although an overwhelming prospect, she started a tech company with her siblings and created a prototype in three weeks that was appreciated by many philanthropists. Since then, she has won many awards for her Maanch platform, which helps investors calculate the impact of their investments on both people and planet.
Speaking about her “cocktail child” with her South African husband of English-Scottish origin, who is older than her by 18 years, she said, “It is this very diversity that South Asia Union Summit Led by Women signifies to me – that one can live in different countries, have different cultures, and yet at heart be united in wanting to make a difference.”
Gillies added, “Women, globally, embody the skill of having conversations and breaking barriers. South Asian women are accommodating yet powerful women, and our strength lies in our ability to adapt. By allowing women to take the lead in peacebuilding ensures safeguarding of communities and results in architectures of peace being built.”
South Asia Union Summit Led by Women is a nonprofit initiative by eShe, a digital platform based in New Delhi that amplifies women’s voices from South Asia and globally. The first in a planned series of annual events, it brought together 50 eminent women from 13 countries to discuss solutions for peace, gender equality, social justice and a unified South Asia.
The event was timed to coincide with the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi and the UN’s International Day of Non-Violence. It was supported by WISCOMP.