More than 200 women entrepreneurs, policy makers, educators and civil society leaders met in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, recently, to discuss economic opportunities for women in Central Asia and Afghanistan. U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake addressed the group to regarding strategies to take women in business to the next level.
"This focus is really an investment in the future," Ambassador Verveer told Voice of America in an interview ahead of the event.
"We know from truly a mountain of data today, that in countries where there is less of a gender disparity, on women's economic and political participation, for example, those countries are much more prosperous. They are much more economically competitive."
Greeting the Symposium, Ambassador Verveer outlined the many barriers to women's economic participation. Lack of access to markets, training, mentors and technology are among the obstacles that stand in the way of women-run businesses. Some women in Central Asia do not have inheritance or property rights or the ability to conduct independent transactions. Symposium members discussed the need to make small and medium business trade policies more women-friendly. Ambassador Verveer told VOA that greater representation in government is key:
"Political participation, economic participation are not divorced from each other. In fact, they are critical parallel arenas for women's empowerment and women's ability to really become agents of change in their own communities for the better."
Access to finance is another major challenge. Ambassador Verveer said micro-credit has helped in this area, but more needs to be done. Partner organizations from international banks to NGOs and private companies were represented at the Symposium to discuss ways to bridge this gap.
"We are hoping that through this conference and the follow-on activities, we will better help you to overcome such barriers," Ambassador Verveer told participants. Symposium members networked and shared inspiring stories, and increased their business knowledge-base.
"This is something that we see as the beginning to a longer term process of collaboration and commitment," Ambassador Verveer told VOA.