2009 Women Business Leaders Forum - Opening Remarks by Ambassador Melanne Verveer, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, U.S. Department of State, United States


"Good morning and thank you very much. Let me say at the outset what a pleasure it is for me to be here for this gathering, and especially for the MENA-OECD Women Business Leaders Summit, and to join with so many entrepreneurs from the MENA region. You are not only building successful businesses, you are improving the lives of families and communities, you are growing the economies of your countries, and you are creating a better world for everyone. So we salute you for your acheivements.

I want to recognise the OECD and the Secretary General. I visited him at the headquarters in Paris not that long ago, and I was reminded once again about the important role that this organisation plays in advancing economic and social development around the globe. And I am especially grateful for his powerful statement this morning about the role that women must play to advance economic growth and prosperity. Because women’s economic empowerment is critical for poverty alleviation, for development, for good governance and prosperous countries, and this gathering is a testimony to that. I also want to acknowledge the United States Ambassador to OECD, Karen Kornbluh, who is here with us this morning. She is an expert on these issues and has participated in a study that was recently released on the state of women’s role in the U.S. economy, the gains we have made and the continuing challenges that we confront.

And I want to recognise the Moroccan officials who are here with us and to say what a great personal pleasure it is for me to be back in Morocco. I was privileged to travel here several times with the then first lady Hillary Clinton, and she was pleased to be back here not too long ago as Secretary of State. I cherish the memories of this great and beautiful place and of the wonderful people here.

And as you have heard this morning already, Morocco has made great strides in many areas, but I also want to underscore one especially. And that is the contributions to women’s progress here. The revising of the Moudawana, your family code, was a significant achievement, not just for the women, but for all of society. It is a model for others and it has shown that the tenets of Islam and women’s equality are not incompatible. I have come to know many of the Moroccan women who have worked on behalf of progress here, and I look forward to seeing some of them later in my visit in Casablanca. And as you’ve heard, since this reform was adopted, record numbers of women have been elected officials, and women are participating in greater numbers in the economy of this country.

It is a simple fact that no country can prosper if half its people are left behind. Today there is a growing body of data that shows that women are key drivers of economic growth. Women invest up to 90% of their incomes in their families and communities and they are the most efficient investment in raising the standards of living around the world. The World Economic Forum recently released its annual Gender Gap Report and it looks at countries – based on the equality between men and women in a given country – on four criteria: access to educational attainment, economic participation, health and survivability, and political participation. And I can tell you that in no country are men and women equal. But in those countries where that gap is closer to being closed, those economies are far more prosperous. So gender equality is smart economics.

Micro credit has lifted up tens of millions of women and their families out of poverty. Today, upwards to eighty to ninety percent of micro borrowers are women. But micro credit, as important as it is, and continues to be, is not enough. We need to grow women-runned small- and medium-sized businesses. They need access to financing, to commercial credit, women need need education and training to build their capabilities and skills, mentors and advocacy networks. And trade and economic policies need to be more responsive to women’s needs. And the barriers that impede economic participation, from the lack of property rights to regulations that strangle entrepreneurship, they need to be lifted. Women’s entrepreneurship matters. In his Cairo speech, President Obama called for a new beginning between the United States and Muslim communities around the world, based on greater partnerships between our peoples and our governments. One of the ways that we can work together is to promote economic opportunity and in March, this coming March, the president will host an entrepreneurship summit in Washington, D.C. to convene people focused on small business, on expanding small businesses, and taking talent and translating it into income generation for families. We invite you to submit the names of potential delegates who could benefit from the Summit and to provide comments on the topics of the agenda. This is part of a larger effort that will include new business development centres and others tools for business growth.

All of you represent the power of networks. One such network that I have come to know well in this region is the MENA Businesswomen’s Network. Supported in part by the United States through MEPI, the Middle East Partnership Initiative, and in collaboration with an NGO, Vital Voices, MENA BWN started as an idea around a dining room table in Tunis. Today there are 11 country associations participating in the Network, soon to be 12. With over 2000 members in just three years, the Network has served to strengthen the ties of women in this region, in some cases even to break down the barriers to economic participation. The country associations certainly have leveraged the NGO and leveraged private and business leaders’ expertise. But the women in this region own the Network, they are the agents of change, they are the examples of a learning community. This Network, like others, other associations represented here, exist to make a difference because individuals took the time and made a commitment to improve themselves, to grow their businesses, to help others to achieve greater economic success.

We need greater collaboration and partnerships, between our governments, between multi-lateral organisations, business, and civil society, if we are going to advance social and economic progress. I am confident that if we work together across the sectors, and also work to tap and unleash the economic potential of women, not only will we create stronger economies but also stronger societies and greater prosperity for all, men and women, boys and girls, everywhere. I wish you all much success today and beyond, and Godspeed."  


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