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Diplomacy in Action

Opening Remarks at the South Asia Women's Entrepreneurship Symposium

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Dhaka, Bangladesh
December 9, 2012


Good morning. I am delighted to be here to help inaugurate the South Asia Women’s Entrepreneurship Symposium. This is a great opportunity to bring together over 100 women entrepreneurs from Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal, Burma, and of course, Bangladesh.

I want to thank Ambassador Verveer and her team for their leadership and initiative in organizing this summit and the Government of Bangladesh for its enthusiastic support. Foreign Minister Moni, thank you for your personal commitment to promoting women’s entrepreneurship and being here with us today. Finally, Ambassador Mozena and his great team at Embassy Dhaka have our thanks for all the hard work they have put into this symposium.

Ladies and gentlemen, Mahatma Gandhi frequently urged people to be the change they want to see. We truly believe that women are the “change agents” who will help South Asia reach its true potential. That’s why we have set some very ambitious goals for this summit – to further equip you with tools for business success, to foster cross-regional collaboration and build multilateral connections, and to create a network of women business owners. All of you were nominated because you are successful, motivated, savvy women.

Speaking of accomplished, savvy women, Secretary Clinton, my boss, has long been an inspiration and an outstanding and outspoken proponent of women’s rights and their economic and political participation. As she has often said, “No society can achieve its full potential when half the population is denied the opportunity to achieve theirs.”

To make sure that women’s empowerment became a core element of American foreign policy, she elevated the Office of Global Women’s Issues at the State Department and appointed the dynamic Ambassador Melanne Verveer to spearhead State Department efforts. We are fortunate to have Ambassador Verveer with us today.

Women today face a range of challenges – illiteracy, poor access to education and credit, gender-based violence, and ingrained discrimination, limiting both their economic and political opportunities. But India and Bangladesh in particular have shown that advancement of women’s rights and improvements in governance, education, health, and security come with the economic empowerment of women.

On the other hand, we have also seen examples of the profoundly negative social and economic consequences that arise when women are excluded from the public sphere, and how complicated and arduous the road back to economic stability is in countries like Afghanistan.

For women to be empowered, they need to have equal access to education and health care, as well as the freedom to start businesses. Women invest 80 percent of their incomes in their families and communities, and women-led local governments are both more honest and provide more public services. When we invest in women’s education and give them the opportunity to access credit or start a small business, the economic, political, and social benefits ripple out far beyond the home.

What common sense has told us and what experience has taught us is that when women are given a chance to take charge of their economic and financial security, they not only take charge of their own destiny, but they change the trajectory of their families and their communities for the better. If we can tap into the knowledge women have of their families’ needs and help them forge an economic identity, families benefit, communities benefit, entire nations benefit.

Education must be synchronized with opportunities to put that knowledge to good use. Events like this symposium put concrete steps in place for realizing that dream. Throughout this event, we will hear inspirational stories about women who have battled the odds in establishing new businesses, broken barriers in various fields of employment, and fought for advancement in the face of cultural and social obstacles.

Many of you here are the first in your family, the first in your community to break this ground – and you are the role models for the next generation of women and girls. Your accomplishments will help them reach heights no one could have dreamed of even a few years ago.

Each of you here today has a role to play in empowering women in this region. You can spread the word in your community. You can mentor young women and build a new generation of standard-bearers. You can build networks within your extended families, towns, cities, all the way up to the national level. You can find partners in government, the private sector and amongst NGOs who can advance the agenda and open doors for you.

Don’t let national boundaries stop you – form close bonds with those you have met here and carry on the exchange of ideas once you have left Dhaka. Thank you, and I wish you a very successful two days!

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