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 You are in: Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs > Office of International Women's Issues > Remarks > 2001-2005 International Women's Issues Remarks

Women, Free Trade and Economic Integration

April W. Palmerlee, Senior Coordinator for International Womens Issues
Remarks to the OAS Inter-America Commission of Women
Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
October 31, 2002

The United States Government is committed to enhancing the role of women at all levels of the economic spectrum. Ensuring that half the world’s population — women — have access to education, technology, employment, and financial and business development services builds productive capacity for sustained growth. By bringing women into the formal economy, the door will be opened for millions who would otherwise be excluded from economic progress.

From U.S. support for greater access to education and educational exchanges and micro-enterprise development, to capacity building and the inclusion of women at the highest levels of policymaking, our commitment to women is steadfast. A key priority for my office, the Office of the Senior Coordinator for International Women’s Issues, is to promote programs and linkages between the empowerment of women and strong democracies and market economies.

Although the rapid changes in the high-technology global economy over the last few years present opportunities to both women and men, women may not always be poised to benefit from them because they may not have the skills required to compete.

Gender inequality is reflected in women’s lack of access to schooling, jobs, credit and public roles, and it results in greater poverty. According to the World Bank, in 1998, 2.8 billion people lived on $2 a day, and 1.2 billion on $1 a day; 70% of them were women.

As Mrs. Bush said on International Women’s Day last March, "Prosperity cannot follow peace without educated women and children. When people are educated, all the indices of society improve." This Commission [the Inter-American Commission on Women, an advisory body to the OAS on women’s issues] also stressed the importance of education, reporting to the Twelfth Inter-American conference of Ministers of Labor that women’s participation in the labor market "increased considerably as a result, inter alia, of the increase in their levels of education."

The United States, as President Bush said at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, is "committed to making education a centerpiece of our economic agenda — because learning and literacy are the foundations for development and democracy." One of President Bush’s priorities is using information and communications technology to support teacher training and to promote higher educational standards.

At the Summit in Quebec, the President announced U.S. sponsorship of the creation of Hemispheric Centers for Teacher Excellence. These centers provide teacher training for improving literacy and basic education, both in person and over the Internet. The President also announced at the Summit the creation of an Inter-American E-Business Fellowship program to give young professionals throughout the Hemisphere — including women — the opportunity to learn information technology while working at U.S. companies. The program provides professionals with the technological tools needed to meet the demands of the new economy in their own societies.

According to World Bank estimates, 90% of the population in developing economies has no access to formal financial services. My government is so persuaded of the benefits of micro-enterprise development that we have been supporting such programs for more than two decades.

Micro-finance organizations extend small loans and technical assistance to the poor for self-employment projects that generate income, allowing them to care for themselves and their families. These organizations operate worldwide, providing services to clients who are typically women and who cannot meet traditional collateral requirements. Although the loans can be as small as $50, micro-finance is good business because repayment rates have consistently exceeded 90% over two decades of operation.

In Guatemala, USAID — on an on-going basis — funds a micro-credit program for small farmers and micro entrepreneurs. This program facilitates credit access to rural women, increasing their participation in agricultural production and in artisanry.

Access to financial services is also an issue for people in the United States. In the United States, over 700 micro-enterprise development organizations provide loans and technical assistance as part of an economic development strategy for low-income communities. In 1991, the U.S. Congress authorized a Micro-Loan Program within the U.S. Small Business Administration to serve individuals without access to formal financial institutions. This program has since provided loans and grants to 170 community-based, non-profit organizations that have in turn made more than $180 million in micro-loans.

Micro-lending benefits not only borrowers for whom loans provide a key to financial independence, but also lenders who enjoy a stable source of revenue from such transactions. Low-income households, when provided access to commercial micro-finance, credit, savings, and other financial services are often able to expand and diversify their business enterprises and, gradually, to increase their incomes. When this occurs, benefits extend to the entire family — children eat more nutritious food and are often able to attend school, a room is added to the house, medicine is provided for an elderly parent, and self-confidence increases.

It has been amply demonstrated that even in exceptionally severe country and regional economic crises, commercial micro-finance institutions that operate on a commercial basis can continue to serve millions of poor clients while remaining solvent and profitable.

We encourage governments to review and revise where necessary the policies and regulations that will facilitate the development of regulated commercial micro-finance. Moreover, disseminating information widely about the underlying principles, international best practices, and specific tools and techniques of successful commercial micro-finance institutions are important contributions that governments can make. Finally, to make these recommendations work, it is essential that high-level political will required for the development of large-scale commercial micro-finance be maintained.

In the Western Hemisphere, the United States has established several programs to build human capacity with a keen gender perspective. In the Dominican Republic, for example, USAID launched a new development strategy this summer. This new strategic plan will help advance the Dominican Republic and USAID priorities in the areas of economic growth, democracy and governance, and health. USAID plans to invest $100 million in these areas over a 5-year period.

Also, the Inter-American Foundation — an independent agency of the U.S. government — provides grants to nongovernmental and community-based organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean for innovative, sustainable and participatory self-help programs.

In Brazil, the Foundation is granting the Criola organization $171,000 to improve the quality of life for 50 Brazilian artisans by increasing access to the market, improving the quality of artisan production and building their managerial capacity. Founded and run by Afro-Brazilian women, the organization has received international attention.

In Haiti, Fondacion La Ruche has received $255,940 from the Foundation over three years toward social investment partnerships that will mobilize resources for at least five local development projects involving some 2,000 low-income families in southern Haiti. One involves the production and marketing of honey through a local women's group.

The U.S. embassies in Mexico and in Canada sent women leaders from business, labor, politics, civil society, education and technology to attend a workshop in Toronto in 2000, "Women’s Leadership Initiative" sponsored by the International Foundation for Election Systems and the women’s MERCOSUR (Mercado Comun del Cono Sur [Southern Cone Common Market]) forum. The goal was to identify priority areas of concern for women in NAFTA countries and to maximize the benefit to women of regional economic integration.

Achieving free trade is a key part of U.S. policy in the Americas. Freer trade stimulates higher economic growth, lowers consumer costs, and thus improves the daily lives of people throughout the Hemisphere. That is why the Free Trade Area of the Americas — and other trade-liberalizing agreements — are central to President Bush’s foreign policy for the Hemisphere. Everyone is better off when economies grow and prices are lower, but that is especially true for the poor — many of which are women.

There have been some studies regarding the possible adverse effect trade-induced changes have on women — mainly because technological changes accompanying trade expansion require higher skill levels. It is imperative that countries prepare to respond to opportunities for enhanced growth and welfare through international trade by guaranteeing greater access to education and training for women so they can meet the skill levels necessary for 21st Century economies.

The United States recognizes the importance women play in economic development around the world and their increasingly significant role as leaders in government and business. In the United States, women-owned businesses are opening at twice the rate of those owned by men, and between 1997 and 2002, sales generated by women-owned firms increased by 40% nationwide, nearing $1.15 trillion. In 2002, these firms employed nearly 9.2 million workers. Today, women in advanced market economies own more than 25% of all businesses; 20-25% of entrepreneurs in transition countries are women. In almost every region of the world, the proportion of women in the labor force has grown substantially.

Promoting mechanisms that allow women to avail themselves of the full range of economic opportunities their societies offer is a major component of U.S. foreign policy. Increasing women’s economic engagement not only benefits the individuals directly involved, but also improves the material well being of society as a whole. Vibrant economies with fair and open markets benefit not only the United States, but also the entire free world. Increasing access to resources and opportunities significantly expands the population that can contribute to the economy and to the community. This is a sustainable approach to growth and development.

This Administration’s goal is to work in partnership with our neighbors in the Western Hemisphere to build a community of democracies that is free, safe and prosperous. By continuing to focus our efforts on the economic advancement of women, we can help turn this goal into a reality.

Released on October 31, 2002

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