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Working together for gender equality in South and West Asia

Posted: 26 November 2019

Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Experience, In Australia, Inclusion, Scholar,

Australia Awards scholars from South and West Asia gathered in Canberra in October 2019 to participate in a Scholars Forum. It was the third such Forum, and had the theme ‘Working together for gender equality in South and West Asia’.

The two-day Forum brought together more than 100 participants, including 69 Australia Awards scholars selected through a competitive process. In line with the theme of the event, scholars engaged in discussion, commitment and action to promote gender equality in their home countries of Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Joining the scholars were Australia Awards alumni; senior diplomats from the region; and representatives of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), women’s advocacy groups, international development organisations, and Australian universities, think-tanks and research institutions. Key speakers across the two-day event addressed topics such as women’s leadership, security and peacebuilding, economic empowerment, and ending violence against women.

Dr Sharman Stone, Australian Ambassador for Women and Girls, delivering the keynote address at the Welcome Reception.

Dr Sharman Stone, Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls, delivering the keynote address at the Welcome Reception

Welcome Reception

The Forum began with a Welcome Reception hosted by DFAT at the iconic Parliament House in Canberra.

Dr Sharman Stone, Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls, delivered the keynote address at the reception, setting the tone for the event. Dr Stone outlined the importance of women and girls’ equal participation in political, economic and social affairs. “It is not easy to achieve,” she said, “but when there is gender equity, your country becomes more prosperous, more peaceful, more climate-resilient, more safe.”

The keynote address was followed by an evening of professional development and high-profile networking for scholars.

Mr Paul Wojciechowski, Assistant Secretary of DFAT’s South Asia Branch, presided over the evening while scholars Ms Mahroo Arshad from Pakistan and Mr Mahboob Sobhani from Bangladesh jointly emceed.

Ms Arshad, who has attended both previous Scholars Forums, reflected on the significance of collaboration to achieve gender equality. “It is imperative to work together on gender equality for sustainable development,” she said.

“These two days presented an excellent opportunity to learn about various facets of gender equality, reflect on how we can contribute to improving gender equality and explore possible synergies among ourselves for a greater impact.”

Scholar Mahroo Arshad from Pakistan and scholar Md Mahboob Sobhani from Bangladesh were emcees for the Welcome Reception

Australia Awards scholars Mr Mahboob Sobhani from Bangladesh (left) and Mahroo Arshad from Pakistan (right) jointly emceed the Welcome Reception

Day two

Mr Wojciechowski spoke again on the second day of the event, delivering the day’s opening remarks. He talked about the accomplishments of the Australia Awards Scholarships program and highlighted the Australian Government’s commitment to advancing Australia’s reputation as a global leader in gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Ms Janelle Weissman, Executive Director at UN Women National Committee Australia, delivered the first keynote address. She spoke about the work of UN Women and the importance of gender equality and women’s empowerment in achieving inclusive and sustainable development. Ms Weissman inspired the scholars with her powerful commitment to the cause:

“Every day, I work for a world where every woman and girl has equal opportunity to lead, to learn, to earn a decent living and to live a life free of violence and discrimination, and that for me is the promise of a gender-equal world.”

Ms Lisa Sharland, Senior Analyst, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, delivered the second keynote address. She spoke on the subject of women, peace and security, and why this was relevant to all international security practitioners, public servants, humanitarian workers, defence personnel and politicians. “Women, peace and security is everyone’s responsibility—not just the responsibility of women,” she said. “It’s critical to our efforts to seek more peaceful societies.”

Following the keynote address was a panel discussion with the theme ‘Why Gender Equality Matters—four perspectives,’ chaired by Dr Annemarie Reerink, Acting Assistant Secretary and Principal Sector Specialist, Gender Equality Branch, DFAT.

Scholars interacting with Dr Janelle Weissman and Dr Shashini Gamage

Scholars Mehala Mahilrajah from Sri Lanka (left) and Arooj Fatima Goheer from Pakistan (far right) interacting with Ms Janelle Weissman, Executive Director at UN Women National Committee Australia (centre) and Dr Shashini Gamage, founder of Women Talk, researcher at La Trobe University and Australia Awards alumna (second from left)

The panellists were Ms Margaret Adamson, private consultant and former Australian High Commissioner to Pakistan; Ms Zarmeen Pavri, Managing Director of Sustainable Consulting Services; Dr Jayne Curnow, Senior Principal Research Scientist of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR); and Australia Awards alumna Dr Shashini Gamage, founder of Women Talk and researcher at La Trobe University.

The panellists spoke, respectively, on topics related to women in leadership, women’s economic empowerment, gender equality in institutions and gender equality in media. They also answered questions from members of the audience.

“It is absolutely vital to have, in all discussion and deliberations about achieving equality and lifting the numbers of women in leadership roles, the support of the majority of those who [currently] occupy these positions… and that is the gentlemen,” Ms Adamson said, emphasising the importance of men and women working together towards increasing the numbers of women in leadership roles.

After the panel discussion, Ms Annika Freyer, Chief Executive Officer of Male Champions of Change, spoke about the role of men—especially those in executive positions—in the gender equality movement. The Male Champions of Change strategy encourages men to step up beside women and challenge the status quo, working across the landscape of women’s advancement.

Mr Paul Wojciechowski, Assistant Secretary of DFAT’s South Asia Branch with scholars at the Welcome Reception

Mr Paul Wojciechowski, Assistant Secretary of DFAT’s South Asia Branch interacting with Australia Awards scholars and alumni at the Scholars Forum

Interactive session

The afternoon consisted of a two-part activity facilitated by Ms Sarah Treadgold, Deputy Team Leader, Australia Awards – South and West Asia. This session, titled ‘Equality Champions — leading cultural change’, was designed to assist scholars in reflecting on what they had learned from the day.

This interactive session also included a number of discussion leaders. These were Mr Martin Fisk, Chief Executive Officer of Menslink; Dr Tahmina Rashid, Associate Professor of International Studies at the University of Canberra; Ms My Linh Nguyen, Gender Adviser at CARE Australia; Ms Amanda Hede, Program Director at Male Champions of Change Health Group; and Dr Shashini Gamage.

In the first part of the session, the scholars were grouped by country and had an opportunity to sit and discuss the challenges and changes needed to achieve gender equality in their country. In the second part of the session, each scholar designed a ‘pledge’—a personal commitment to achieving gender equality in their everyday life. After the activity, scholars were invited to share their pledges within these small groups and with the larger audience over a microphone, as well as digitally through real-time polling technology.

Scholars Ms Hemlata Karki from Bhutan and Mr Hassan Nashrah from the Maldives were both active participants at the Forum and ended the day by developing strong personal commitments for gender equality. Ms Karki, a teacher, pledged to address the gender imbalance in management roles in her workplace by initiating discussions with her school’s principal and vice principal, as well as encouraging female staff members to be more active in management. Mr Nashrah pledged that he would strive to have a balanced team with equal numbers of participants from both genders in all his projects so that women team members can attain the knowledge needed to progress towards leadership.

Scholars participating in the interactive session and discussing opportunities for gender equality in South and West Asia

Objectives and outcomes

The overarching objective of the Forum was to learn about and discuss the various facets of gender equality and reflect on how scholars can promote gender equality as individuals, in their countries and in the region.

As outcomes from the Forum, scholars learnt about the economic, developmental, social and human rights benefits of gender equality; identified key challenges and ways to improve gender equality in their countries; designed personal commitments to champion gender equality; and developed professional networks with Australians beyond their academic pursuits.

In a survey completed by 63 scholars who attended the Forum, 98% agreed that they now feel more confident in understanding and being able to explain the economic, developmental and human rights benefits of gender equality both in their country and in the region. 77% strongly agree that they have gained new knowledge and insights into how to lead positive changes in promoting gender equality in their workplaces and community.

Scholars from Nepal at the Scholars Forum

Scholars Sangita Dandekhya, Milan Paudel and Preeti Maharjan from Nepal at the Scholars Forum

Communications and technology

Innovative communications initiatives are integrated thoughtfully throughout each Scholars Forum, and this Forum was no exception.

As a Scholars Forum first, the two-day event had a dedicated event webpage for scholars and other event participants. Stories of selected Australia Awards alumni who are women in leadership or male champions of change were showcased through a digitally rotating gallery at the Forum’s Welcome Reception.

Other initiatives included real-time image sharing through WalkerKam technology. This gave participants the opportunity to receive their professional images through a text message immediately after they were taken. These photos, branded Australia Awards, included links to load the images directly onto social media. A related social media competition encouraged both female and male scholars to share their gender equality pledge, in addition to their learnings from the Forum.

Through live polling technology, real-time digital feedback from scholars was presented on screens during each of the Forum’s breaks. This technology was also used by scholars to digitally display their gender equality pledges at the end of the day.


Mr Wojciechowski delivered the closing remarks for the event. He thanked the scholars for their active engagement and lively discussions, and encouraged them to build on the knowledge gained at the event and stay active as members of the Australia Awards alumni network. This wrapped up the second and final day of the Forum, and participants left energised and motivated to incorporate gender equality in their development journey.

The event followed the success of the inaugural Australia Awards Scholars Forum for South and West Asia, held in Canberra in October 2018, which focused on supporting institutional and people-to-people links between Australia and the region, and the second Scholars Forum, held in Melbourne in May 2019, which aimed to empower leaders for development in South and West Asia.


Scholars Forum (Oct 2019) photo gallery
Scholar Mahroo Arshad from Pakistan reflects on the Scholars Forum