It gives me great pleasure to add my welcome on behalf of the United States to all of you gathered here in Siam Reap for this first ever gender equality and women’s empowerment policy dialogue as part of the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI). I have always wanted to come to this beautiful country. I know many women who are exemplary leaders here in Cambodia, many of whom are in this room, and it is fitting that this meeting is taking place here.
I want to salute the Royal Government of Cambodia for the great dedication that has gone into this enterprise and I especially want to acknowledge the Minister of Women’s Affairs, Dr. Phavi, for her tireless efforts. I’m sure we all agree that the presence of the Deputy Prime Minister here this morning fittingly exemplifies Cambodia’s commitment to this endeavor.
The United States is pleased to have played a leadership role in the conference and I’m personally pleased to be able to serve as co-host with the Cambodian Minister of Women’s Affairs. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who will join us tomorrow, launched this initiative in 2009 along with her fellow Foreign Ministers from Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. We are all pleased that Burma joined in 2012. All of the Lower Mekong governments and representatives of civil society, as well as the friends of LMI—have come together for this historic gathering. Tomorrow the leaders of the region will adopt a joint statement on gender equality and women’s empowerment at the LMI Ministerial in Phnom Penh.
We have come together in Siam Reap from across the Mekong, across Asia—from Australia, New Zealand and Japan to the United States – from institutions like the World Bank and the Asia Development Bank. We have come together to develop strategies and grow new collaborations, to share best practices and chart the way forward for women in the region so they can more effectively advance economic, political and social change.
We know that no nation can get ahead if half of its people are left behind. We know that when women prosper, their families, communities and nations prosper. Women’s empowerment must be a central component of any effort to address the pressing challenges in the region from economic opportunity to security. We will be placing special emphasis on four key pillars for progress around which we will focus our discussions: education, health, the environment and infrastructure—from banking to technology---all with a focus on the important role that women must play in all these areas. This is not just the right thing to do but also the smart and strategic thing to do.
Take the vital role of women in the agriculture sector. In many developing countries women farmers are the backbone of the economy and they comprise the majority of the small farmers. Yet their work is often not counted as economically active employment in many economies. Moreover, women farmers do not have equal access to resources and this significantly limits their potential to enhancing productivity. They are often at a severe disadvantage when it comes to training- the kind that is available through extension programs- or other kinds of resources from fertilizer to access to credit in order to purchase what they need to grow their output. And last year, the FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization, produced its annual report on the vital role that women play in the agriculture sector. And what their report shows is that when women farmers are provided with equal resources, they can produce yields equal to those of their male counterparts, if not more. But there is a huge gender gap in access to resources, and closing that gap and providing women farmers with the same resources could increase their individual yields, according to the UN, by 20-30 percent, and in turn improve agricultural production between 2.5 to 5 percent and reduce the number of undernourished people up to 150 million globally. This is why President Obama’s major Feed the Future initiative is integrating gender into all aspects of the program to strengthen the world’s food productivity.
Progress and prosperity will be shortchanged (and women truly shortchanged) if women are not accorded their rights and afforded opportunities to participate fully in the lives of their societies, at all levels of decision making. Investing in women is one of the most powerful tools to grow prosperity, to alleviate poverty, to improve the lives of all the people. Throughout the next two days we will tackle a range of important issues and develop a range of strategies, but this conference is not an end in itself, but the beginning of a long-term collaboration among all of us and others in our governments, institutions and organizations. For our part the United States is committed to working with all of you in the weeks and months ahead. Today we are announcing a number of initiatives to begin to respond to this call to action and over these two days you will make new connections among each other. Together we’re a powerful force for change.
The United States stands ready to build on this moment to help sustain and grow these connections. We will help to launch a Lower Mekong Network to take all the good ideas that are developed here to address key challenges, to help to build women’s capacity in key areas and strengthen women’s leadership. We will support Women, Peace and Security Fellows to recognize the important role that women play in peace and security. The U.S. Department of Defense will host fellows from the Lower Mekong region at the Asia Pacific Center in Hawaii to enable them to become immersed in key issues and participate in programs to support their leadership. In response to the need to invest in progress for women and girls in STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- which is so critical to the 21st century workforce, the United States will also support exchanges among women scientists and develop related programs.
This is just the beginning. This conference will pave the way for other avenues of support and collaboration among all of us. I am confident of that. This is a critical time for us to have this conversation in a region that is undergoing political, economic and social transformation. It is equally critical that women of the Lower Mekong be empowered to provide the vital leadership and engagement that will be so necessary to ensuring a better future for all the people of the region. As the powerful Mekong region river winds through the region, so too the women of the region must be integrated into the important decisions that will take place to advance social, economic and political progress. I wish us all a very productive and rewarding conference.