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Supporting Women In APEC Economies

Women make lanterns in a lantern shop in Hoi An, Vietnam. (file)

Together, governments and the private sector can unlock the vast untapped promise of women's economic participation.

Over the last year, as chair of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC, Forum, the United States has led the charge to tear down economic barriers facing women in the region. In September, member economies issued the San Francisco declaration affirming their commitment to improving women's access to capital and markets, to building women's capacities and skills, and supporting the rise of women leaders in both the public and private sector.

Economists estimate that women consumers will control $15 trillion in spending by the year 2014. And by 2028, women will be responsible for about two-thirds of consumer spending worldwide.

But participation must go beyond buying products to making and selling them, said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in a recent speech at the CEO Summit on Women and the Economy. Today, more than half a million enterprises in Indonesia and nearly 400,000 in South Korea are headed by women. Women run 20 percent of all of China's small businesses. All across Asia, women continue to dominate light manufacturing sectors which have proved crucial to the region's development.

But women continue to face barriers. In many Asian countries, laws, customs and values form a glass ceiling that holds back progress. Too many women in APEC economies don't have the same inheritance rights as men, so they can't inherit property or businesses owned by fathers and spouses. And too often women are denied access to credit or subjected to higher interest rates than men.

These aren’t just obstacles to prosperity for individual women; they are obstacles to prosperity for every business and every economy. So we must work together, said Secretary Clinton, to give women entrepreneurs more access to capital so they can start and grow their own businesses. We must examine and reform our legal and regulatory systems so women can avail themselves of the full range of financial services. We must improve women’s access to markets, so those who start businesses can keep them open.

Numerous American businesses are doing their part. Walmart, for example, has committed to doubling the amount of goods it buys from women-owned businesses around the world by 2016. And Coca-Cola aims to support 5 million women entrepreneurs worldwide by 2020.

Together, governments and the private sector can unlock the vast untapped promise of women's economic participation.