USA: Support for Entrepreneurship and Women's Empowerment Among U.S. Priorities in South and Central Asia

U.S. Department of State Official Blog
Wednesday, January 16, 2013 - 19:00
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Rabia Mariam is a businesswoman who employs an all-women workforce to manufacture scarves and rugs from silk, cotton-silk blend, and wool in Mazar-e-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan. Working with the USAID IDEA-NEW program, she employs nearly 1,000 women - many of them widows. Many of these Afghan women raise silkworms at home and boil cocoons, and go to weaving centers to weave the scarves and other handicrafts. Rabia's work is bringing economic opportunity and hope to Afghan women.

I had the privilege of meeting Rabia and learning about her work at the South Asia Women's Entrepreneurship Symposium, which was held in Dhaka, Bangladesh last month. The event exemplifies several of our bureau's highest priorities over the past year, including regional integration, women's empowerment, and support for entrepreneurship, so I thought it would be worth highlighting for our DipNote readers as we look back on 2012.

The event brought together Rabia and 100 other dynamic women entrepreneurs from South and Central Asia, a diverse region ranging from Pakistan to Burma and from Kazakhstan to Sri Lanka. Each of these women came with a unique story. I'd like to highlight a few of them, drawn from a recent op-ed I co-authored with Ambassador Melanne Verveer:

"Take for example, a Bangladeshi leather product producer, Ms. Tania Wahab. Tania began her journey in 2005 with an investment of Tk.10,000 (approximately $122) and a small range of leather products. Initially, Tania faced tremendous challenges in developing quality products due to the lack of skilled workers, technical knowledge, and access to business linkages and finance.
In 2010, Tania received training through a program funded by the U.S. Government that helped her improve production quality, enhance production capacity, and develop better management and documentation skills. This training gave her the capacity to participate in international trade fairs and expand her connections with potential buyers.

"Today, Tania's successful business Karigar employs 20 full-time and 100 part-time workers who produce high quality women's bags, belts, leather jackets, and small leather goods for local and export markets. Sales have increased by 25 percent since 2008. Tania attributes her participation in the training program, access to information on how to improve her production and business management skills, and support to expand her professional network as key to her success.

"Or take Kamila Sidiqi from Afghanistan, who was only 19 when the Taliban began banning women from schools and prohibiting them from working outside the home or leaving the house without full cover and a male relative. Despite these circumstances, Sidiqi succeeded as an entrepreneur and role model. Her older sister taught her to sew, and her brother escorted her on product marketing trips to local clothing shops. Desperate for work, other girls and women in the neighbourhood joined Sidiqi and her younger sisters to fill the growing number of orders, which resulted in rapidly growing operations.

"Collectively, they developed strict operating procedures, training classes, and quality control, and attempted to avoid drawing the Taliban's attention. Eventually, even the Taliban asked Sidiqi for jobs and even once requested that she produce clothing for a Taliban wedding. Sidiqi is now running her own consultancy firm aimed at helping women start their own businesses."

In Dhaka, I witnessed how these dynamic women expanded their networks and connected with each other to forge a diverse array of new partnerships for cross-border trade, export, and training -- ranging from an initiative to expand the "Just Jobs" network in India to Afghanistan and Pakistan to a new partnership between the Central Asian Craft Support Association and the Federation of Indian Export Organization textile exporters. These women exemplify the future of the region, and this symposium is just one example of the work being done throughout South and Central Asia to bring the region closer together.

I look forward to continuing to update you on our efforts in 2013, and wish all of our DipNote readers a very Happy New Year!

Robert Blake, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs