By Melanne Verveer, former Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues at the U.S. StateDepartment
Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, argued that nothing is more critical for development today than the political, economic and social participation and leadership of women.
And nowhere is this tenet more evident than in Burma, where Gap Inc. has announced it will produce its product from two factories. Every time I visit, I am struck by the incredible drive and indomitable spirit of the women in this country—women who span the generations and are working to start and grow small businesses, create and build NGOs, run for elective office and end conflict in the ethnic regions. In a land that has been isolated for decades, women have embraced their role as agents of change.
In Burma, a country still paving the road to freedom and prosperity, there is no better investment than women.
We know that when women are given opportunities to join the formal labor force, their health improves, their children are better educated and civil society is bolstered. In short, everyone benefits.
Research shows that women's economic participation grows economies and creates jobs, and their income has a multiplier effect. Women invest their incomes back into their family for education and health and at the same time raise the standard of living in their society. In other words, investing in women is not just good social policy, it’s smart economic policy as well. Women are recognized GDP-drivers, and when they have access to the right tools, from skills training to credit, they can make an enormous difference.
And given this difference, we all must do more to provide women with opportunities for economic advancement. The garment industry, an industry that typically provides much-needed jobs for women, is primed to do just that in Burma.
I applaud Gap Inc. for their decision to enter the market in Burma and the company's ongoing commitment to the well-being and empowerment of their workers, particularly through its P.A.C.E. (Personal Advancement & Career Enhancement) program, which aims to promote the advancement of female garment workers by providing life skills education and technical training. Economic indicators show that the garment industry has provided the majority of jobs in some developing countries during their growth stage. For many women, it is their first sustainable income.
Burma is at a critical juncture. Even with the slow progress, the challenges that the Burmese still face are enormous. From human rights abuses to a lack of basic infrastructure, there remains much to be done. But one thing remains clear: in order for everyone to benefit from the country’s economic growth, we need the government, the private sector and NGOs to work together to ensure that women’s economic empowerment continues to move from a concept to a reality. No one sector of society can confront this challenge on its own.
The women in Burma are inspirational. Those of the older generation who survived often horrifying times and continue to work to support the next generation; Generation 88, many of whom spent time in prison for their pro-democracy activities and today work to build a new Burma in politics and civil society; students who are eager to participate in organizations to address pressing challenges; entrepreneurs who want to grow their businesses.
Theirs is a story of hope and commitment that is repeated time and again. There is a connective thread that binds the stories of women I meet in Burma, Brazil, India and Mexico. With astounding consistency, women are driven not just to take home wages, but to secure opportunities that will help their families, villages and communities. As Aung San Suu Kyi rightfully noted: “the education and empowerment of women throughout the world cannot fail to result in a more caring, tolerant, just and peaceful life for all.”