Given the overwhelming evidence of women being a force behind growth, the U.S.-backed regional women’s entrepreneurship symposium in Dhaka must be used to find solutions to the barriers they face

Greater regional economic integration is essential to enhanced economic growth and prosperity in South and Central Asia. To encourage this integration, the United States is actively supporting efforts by governments, private sector partners, and regional institutions to enhance trade and market linkages throughout the region and beyond. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s vision of the New Silk Road prioritises this economic connectivity as essential to regional prosperity.

We know with certainty that no effort to support regional economic integration or to achieve economic growth and prosperity will succeed without the full and equal participation of half the population — namely women.

To support this goal, from December 8-11 we will host the regional South Asia Women’s Entrepreneurship Symposium in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The symposium will bring together over 100 key policymakers, women entrepreneurs, civil society organisations, and private sector companies from 11 countries in the region to work on concrete actions to expand women’s economic participation.

What data shows

Investing in women, and particularly women entrepreneurs, is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do. Data from the World Bank and other institutions show that women-owned small and medium-sized enterprises drive economic growth and create jobs. This is true in the U.S. and it is true around the world. And women who are successful in business are also empowered to be leaders in their communities and countries.

Take the example of Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, who started her professional career as a trainee in beer brewing at Carlton & United Beverages in 1974. In 1978, she founded Biocon India in collaboration with Biocon Biochemicals Limited with Rs.10,000.

She initially faced many problems, as banks were hesitant to loan to her because she was a woman and also because biotechnology was such a new field at the time. She persevered, however, and grew her company into a powerhouse. Gender aside, she is now respected as one of the most successful businesspeople in India.

Women’s success in entrepreneurship in many countries is often hindered by barriers that undermine their ability to start or to expand their business. Access to markets and credit is still a major challenge to women entrepreneurs today, as is access to training, mentors, and technology. Women confront discriminatory laws and practices, including a lack of property rights. And while these barriers are common to both men and women, women often face additional and unique challenges of managing domestic responsibilities along with their business obligations.

Given the overwhelming evidence in support of women in driving economic growth, we cannot afford to ignore these barriers. Instead, we must actively seek to overcome them by developing innovative policies and brokering partnerships across sectors and national borders to harness this underutilised potential for growth.

The U.S. is playing an active role in this endeavour. At this week’s South Asia Women’s Entrepreneurship Symposium, participants will identify key obstacles to women’s access to resources, markets, and networks. They will then develop an action plan to advance women’s awareness of their rights and build capacity and leadership skills necessary to grow their businesses. Following the symposium, the action plan developed in Dhaka will be used to identify additional investments aimed at promoting women’s entrepreneurship throughout the region and contribute to regional economic growth, peace, and stability.

This is an exciting time in South Asia with a young and dynamic workforce enjoying ever-expanding opportunities to engage the global economy and improve the quality of life. We truly cannot afford to squander the economic potential that women represent if we want to improve prosperity for all — men and women, girls and boys. We must invest in girls’ education to ensure that they have an equal opportunity to succeed in the workforce. We must continue to confront social, cultural, and political barriers to women’s full inclusion in our economies. In doing so, we embrace the fullest potential for our societies and future.

(Melanne S. Verveer is U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues and Robert O. Blake is U.S. Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs.)

More In: Comment | Opinion