Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Dhaka, Bangladesh
December 10, 2012

Good evening. I am so pleased to be back here to speak with you at the conclusion of this very productive event.

I want to thank all of you for your enthusiastic participation, the Government of Bangladesh for its support; Ambassador Verveer’s team, our Regional Affairs office, and the Steering Committee for conceiving and organizing this symposium; Ambassador Mozena and the team at our embassy here for doing so much of the heavy lifting; and last but definitely not least, Eileen O’Connor for the terrific job she has done.

Sadly, today’s killing of the Acting Director of Women’s Affairs in Afghanistan’s Laghman province is a tragic reminder of just how difficult the struggle can be for women in this region.

From the beginning, the Obama Administration has emphasized women’s empowerment as an essential lynchpin in our global outreach strategy and a critical aspect of our foreign policy. Advancing gender equality and economically integrating women throughout the region is a key objective for the South and Central Asia Bureau that I lead, and a cornerstone of our vision to build regional ties and networks.

Let me take a moment here to put this program in the wider context of U.S. foreign policy in South Asia. One of our highest strategic priorities is to encourage the development of broad regional linkages that can help build a democratic, secure, and prosperous region.

That is the vision behind the New Silk Road Secretary Clinton and I have spoken about, facilitating the movement of people, commerce, and ideas between Western Europe, the Middle East, all the way to East Asia. And that is the vision behind what is being called the Indo-Pacific Corridor, a new effort to link the dynamic markets of South Asia and Southeast Asia, leveraging the strategic opportunity afforded by the opening in Burma.

Economic liberalization, infrastructure connections and commerce will make South and Central Asia prosper as never before. Trade amongst South Asian countries was a mere 4% of their trade with the rest of the world and accounted for only 1.5% of the region’s GDP last year, making South Asia one of the least economically integrated regions in the world. Think of the opportunities this presents.

Likewise, building alternative transportation routes to move goods at lower cost from South Asia to Southeast and East Asia would increase integration for the entire region, including Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the countries of the Lower Mekong delta.

But this is not just about material goods and fostering wealth. In addition to the economic benefits, mutual economic interdependence through trade and increased cross-border flows could be influential as a conduit to peace, especially as we prepare for the transition of forces in Afghanistan.

Today, Afghanistan’s neighbors and near-neighbors once again include some of the fastest-growing economies in the world. This broader region is home to over one-fifth of the world’s population. That market can fuel Afghanistan’s continued economic growth, new jobs, and public revenue, as well as increased private-sector investment in the region, for decades to come.

The lessons are clear – the closer countries and individuals are bound together by trade and mutual benefit, the more incentive there is to work together. These cross-border economic, political, and social linkages are one key to the future of this region. The women of South Asia, where family and community networks are strong, understand this better than anyone else. And not only do they have an invaluable role to play in bringing this about, they also stand to benefit economically and socially.

The reality is that women everywhere face significantly unequal circumstances. These last few days we have covered both the agony and the ecstasy; we have learned that women in South Asia have traveled far but have much further still to go. Women still own less than 10% of SMEs in South Asia; the UN reports that 80% of working women in this region are in what is considered vulnerable employment.

Yet there are more than 200 million women entrepreneurs worldwide and in many developing countries, women’s incomes are growing faster than men’s. Governments, private companies, and NGOs are focusing more and more on women as the secret weapon to drive economic development. They are using the tools at their disposal to provide credit, banking and insurance services to more women.

Women’s issues are being integrated into our Strategic Dialogues with countries like India and Pakistan. We work bilaterally and multilaterally to ensure women’s voices are heard in emerging democracies and governments, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

India’s requirement that women make up between 25 to 33% of local and state elected bodies and Bangladesh’s commitment to women’s becoming 50% of the workforce by 2021 under the Equal Futures Partnership are noteworthy. Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank and other institutions have made ground-breaking contributions in micro-credit, bringing hope to 8.3 million of its most vulnerable citizens, mostly women.

Many leading U.S. businesses, such as ExxonMobil, Coca-Cola, Goldman Sachs, and Ernst & Young, have embraced the idea of women’s empowerment with training programs like “5 by 20”, “10,000 women” and “Winning Women.” We need more companies, regionally and internationally, to commit to harnessing the economic power that women can bring to the equation.

Beyond governments and the private sector, there is much that we as individuals can do to advance the cause of women. I encourage all of you to reflect on what you can do to put words and ideas into action.

The first step is to participate – speak up and be a voice for inclusion; build and leverage your connections; and take leadership roles in the political arena. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka have had women Prime Ministers, but we need the average woman to be a more active partner in the economic and political conversations in her country.

For our part, we intend for this conference to be not just a one-off event, but rather a launching platform for a range of initiatives. The State Department will be offering women entrepreneurs from the region the opportunity to participate in exchange programs which will connect them to their American counterparts and create lasting business relationships.

We are also working with the UK’s Cherie Blair Foundation for Women to connect women like you to global mentors through their Mentoring Women in Business initiative. My bureau is also planning follow-on support by providing a grant to the Asia Foundation, which will establish training and networking platforms and a small grants program to connect women’s business associations and promote women’s entrepreneurship across the region.

Just as we did for our Central Asia and Afghanistan Symposium in 2011, we plan to provide additional assistance through the Asia Foundation to support your Action Recommendations going forward. We know those range from innovations that allow women to access finance to advocacy through business associations and networks that can leverage key business and trade reforms.

Ambassador Verveer stressed the importance of networks at the outset, and we are pleased to see the country-level and cross-border collaborations and joint ventures that have arisen, as articulated in your commitments and country presentations.

The United States is committed to seeing this initiative and network flourish. However, for it to truly succeed, each and every one of you must assume ownership. The ripple effect will overcome long-entrenched resistance by helping women take charge of their own destinies.

Believe this if nothing else – by achieving what you have accomplished over your lifetimes, by breaking down barriers and moving the ball ever closer to the goal, you are changing not just your life and the lives of those in your immediate circle but the lives of girls who are not even born yet. Together, we can alter the dynamic. It will not happen overnight but with perseverance, it will come.

Remember that you do not stand alone. Remember that your voices and your perspectives need to be heard in policy discussions in the village panchayats, the town councils, the city, state, and national governments. Remember that in taking charge of your economic destiny, you bring women, individually and collectively, a step closer to taking their rightful place in society. Remember, too, that we are with you every step of the way in building this foundation, brick by brick, network by network. Thank you very much.