Central Asia and Afghanistan Women's Economic Symposium

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Central Asia and Afghanistan Women's Economic Symposium
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
July 18, 2011

As prepared for delivery

Thank you, Bob.

Let me begin by saying it is a personal pleasure to be back in Central Asia, one of the world's most historic and beautiful regions, which I first visited over ten years ago, while traveling with then-First Lady of the United States Hillary Clinton. It is fitting that we come together in the region of the ancient Silk Road to spark greater economic opportunity and commerce through women's leadership and participation on a modern day Silk Road.

I want to offer a very special welcome to each and every one of you, particularly the extraordinary women entrepreneurs, educators, policy-makers, and civil society leaders from Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. We are thrilled that you've come together. You represent a truly vital force for driving economic growth and progress in your region.

It is also a pleasure to be here with President Otunbayeva, whom I first met in Beijing in 1995 at the United Nation's Fourth World Conference on Women, where she gave an impassioned speech about the importance of women's economic empowerment and highlighted the power of microfinance. Several years later, I had the opportunity to spend several days with her discussing women's political participation at the Salzburg Seminar. Little known then, today she is President of her country and a model for democratic leadership and women's progress. I want to thank her for her outstanding work and for being such a willing partner in addressing these issues.

I also thank the members of the U.S. embassies and consulates who are here, who worked so hard to bring us to this day, and particularly Ambassador Pamela Spratlen and her staff in Bishkek. Our embassies were not only instrumental in selecting you, but they will continue to work with you when you leave here, through online conversations and meetings in your country and the region, as well as new investments in training programs, access to finance, internships, and more. This conference is not an end, but a beginning.

We also have a wealth of partners represented here today, from leading international organizations, including UN Women, OSCE, EBRD, and IFC, to universities and foundations, including the American University of Central Asia, the University of Central Asia, and the Aga Khan Foundation, to private companies, including Mary Kay, ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs, and Chevron. All of you are men and women who possess a reservoir of talent and experience in finance, technology, management and so many other areas. We are pleased that you, as representatives of your institutions and companies, have come together to share best practices and to make this, as Secretary Clinton said, not just a one-time event, but rather the beginning of a meaningful collaboration and a true investment for the future.

Today, there are many converging studies--from the World Bank to the World Economic Forum (WEF), from think tanks, universities, and corporations--that show that investing in women is a high yield investment. Gender equality in access to education, healthcare, political participation, and economic participation is key to a country's competitiveness and prosperity. No wonder the World Bank calls gender equality "smart economics." Women's economic participation also provides a multiplier effect because women invest upwards of 90 percent of their income in their families and communities on health, education, and other investments for the betterment of society.

Women entrepreneurs offer people everywhere so much promise. It is a fact that women-run small and medium-sized enterprises (SME's) drive economic growth and create jobs. This is true in my country and it is true around the world. And, women-owned enterprises often have a better growth rate and a better loan payback rate. That's why one CEO remarked, "If you want to drive GDP, the best investment that can be made are women-run SME's."

And many of you here today are perfect examples.

Women are growing their ranks as entrepreneurs in Afghanistan. Last week, I saw Taj Serat, who owns a soccer ball business that employs several hundred women who create high quality balls, which the company has just begun to export.

This past Saturday in Uzbekistan, I met a remarkable woman, Zora Rakhmatullaeva, who was disabled. She said that day after day she used to sit at home feeling useless. She got up her strength one day and set out to organize others like her to create a viable business. She now heads up the Association of Business Disabled Women and showed me pictures of the beautiful curtains, bedspreads, and other home fabrics that women with disabilities are making through their viable business.

I also remember meeting Rauschan Sarsembayeva from Kazakhstan several years ago. She is an outstanding business leader, who as head of the Women's Business Association of Kazakhstan, has trained women through vocational technology programs and placed them in jobs. She pays her experience forward, so others may also succeed.

And when I was with First Lady Hillary Clinton here in Bishkek in 1997, I saw firsthand how women, thanks to micro-credit, were able to establish small businesses to support themselves and their families, despite challenging economic times.

But as many of you know, and as these women would also readily acknowledge, women's success is often hindered by barriers that often undermine their ability to start or to expand their business. Barriers like lack of access to markets, to training, mentors, and technology. Today, for example, 300 million fewer women than men have mobile phones. This gender gap is depriving women of a vital technology that is critical to economic success. In addition, women often confront corruption, discriminatory regulations or practices like lack of inheritance and property rights. Sometimes women are subject to blatant or subtle harassment, disparagement, or dismissive treatment. In some places, women cannot conduct transactions without the permission or participation of male family members. And, of course, it's also difficult to balance the responsibilities of family and work.

Access to finance is perhaps the major challenge to women for business growth everywhere. Micro-credit has lifted up millions and millions of poor women around the world and enabled them to earn an income, support their families, and pay back their loans at close to 100% repayment rates. I remember a woman who told me how she had longed for a high-powered sewing machine, but did not have the means to purchase one. She told me that she felt like "a bird released from its cage" when she got the loan that enabled her to finally get the machine, grow her business, and pay back her loan.

Yet the significant gender gap to finance remains painfully acute as it affects what we might call "the missing middle" of the small and medium enterprise sector, which is mostly women-run and has the best growth and jobs creation potential. That's why my government is working to help women overcome obstacles to greater economic participation. We are hoping that through this conference and the follow-on activities, we will better help you to overcome such barriers.

Muhtar Kent, the CEO of Coca Cola, put it another way. Several months ago he announced a significant new commitment by Coca Cola to empower five million women entrepreneurs by 2020. He said that the "21st century goes to the women." He went on to explain why: "The only way a projected billion people will rise to middle class in the next ten years, the only way nations will rise out of poverty and become politically stable will be by women achieving gender parity on a global scale."

To reach their full national economic potential, countries must also prepare and train their girls and women to participate equally, and to compete effectively, in the local, regional and global marketplaces. Educating a girl is the simplest, most effective development investment that can be made with high yield dividends for her and her future family. Young women also need market-relevant education, leadership skills, and encouragement to apply their talents in the more lucrative, although perhaps less traditional, sectors.

In addition, women need to be represented at the policy-making table if the needs of their families, communities and societies are to be fully addressed. As your businesses grow, we are confident you will speak out against corruption when you see it. As your businesses grow, we know you will be voices for a climate that fosters innovation and prosperity. As your businesses grow, you will advocate with your leaders for a system that promotes greater communication and trade. As leaders in business, we know you will also work to strengthen democratic institutions and civil society. And working together, you will not only benefit your businesses and grow your economies, but also strengthen cross-border relationships.

Each of you is helping to chart a path to a better tomorrow for yourselves and your families, your communities, and your countries. And in so doing, you are also role models for young women who want to start their own business or move ahead in their careers. If you build a network of women leaders that spans this region, there will be no stopping you and no stopping progress for this region. We know that empowering women is one of the most effective and positive forces for reshaping the globe. It is a simple fact that no country can get ahead if it leaves half its people behind.

We know too that you will share this investment in you with others as women always do, that you will pay this experience forward to benefit so many more. When women progress, everyone benefits: men and women, boys and girls. The Silk Road will thrive again as you travel on your journey, not on camels, but through women's greater economic participation. As you move toward your destination of economic, social, and political progress, you, like the traders of old, will create new opportunities for all.

I hope you have a productive and rewarding experience over the next day and a half, and in the months and years to come. We will work together with you as partners, in order to create a better future for people throughout this region.