Ambassador's Remarks to the Women's Chamber of Commerce and Industry
August 29, 2010
Cinnamon Grand Hotel Colombo
I am very pleased to be here tonight with the Women's Chamber of Commerce and Industry to celebrate women entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka. I previously met with your chairperson, Vidyani Hettigoda (VID-yani HET-tigoda) and discussed the vital work of the Women's Chamber to promote economic development in Sri Lanka. I have also met with the Woman's Chamber of Commerce in Jaffna, and they can help reconstruct the economy in the North and provide jobs for needy women. As we all know, women entrepreneurs have an important role to play in building the economy and bettering the lives of all Sri Lankans.
Women have always had an important place in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has had two strong women Presidents, who have helped shape the country. Women have also been critical for Sri Lanka's economic development as well, although often as workers rather than business leaders. Much of Sri Lanka's wealth comes from three areas, tea production, garment factories, and overseas workers. Women are on the front lines of each of these industries, picking the tea, producing the garments, or working far away from home and often at risk to send money to their families. Although we applaud their hard work, now is the time for women to move to the forefront as entrepreneurs.
The U.S. Embassy is doing our part to recognize women leaders and foster women entrepreneurs. The U.S. Department of State recognized Jensila Kubais as an International Woman of Courage in 2010 for her work advocating for the rights of Muslim women and children. Ms. Kubais is the managing trustee of the Community Trust Fund in
Puttalam, where the trust oversees programs on human rights, peace building, working with youth, and women's empowerment. The Embassy nominated Ms. Kubais for this honor, and we were very pleased when she was selected in Washington as an International Woman of Courage.
The United States also recognized another leading Sri Lankan, Rezani Aziz, for her achievements. You all know Rezani because she is the former head of this business chamber. Rezani was selected for the U.S. International Visitor Leadership Program, where she traveled to the United States to learn how business and trade associations could empower people and create change. Earlier this month Rezani was recognized as the State Department Alumni member of the month of August for her efforts here in Sri Lanka. Rezani has been hard at work with other entrepreneurs to provide training to migrant women and to establish women's business associations. She created the "A Cleaner Colombo in 100 Days" campaign to help neighborhoods clean up their waste. These efforts to help women become independent are particularly important in Sri Lanka because there are many war widows, both in the North and South, and who need our help and encouragement.
The United States has also been helping women's business groups directly. This year we had a new fund to provide help to women's organizations. We nominated several strong organizations, and three were selected by Washington to receive funding. I am pleased that the United States will provide grants to promote women's entrepreneurship in Hambantota and in Puttalam, and to provide assistance in Jaffna against domestic violence. In Hambantota, we provided a grant for the Hambantota Chamber of Commerce to create a women's section in their chamber, to promote entrepreneurship among disadvantaged women, and to teach English, entrepreneurship and information technology skills to women. In Puttalam, the U.S. grant will help the Woman's Savings Effort train 225 women to form women's organizations, provide training in product design and business management, provide loans, and develop their marketing. In Jaffna, our grant will help the Women in Need group to reduce and prevent domestic violence against women and children.
Finally, I should mention one other project we are supporting. A group of alumni of our International Visitor Exchange programs has created a Women's Leadership Program to inspire women to become leaders in both the private and public sectors. Despite Sri Lanka's history of female heads of state, women still are underrepresented in the board rooms and decision-making bodies of this country. In Parliament, women hold only 13 of the 225 seats and only 7% of the seats on corporate boards. In order to help women break through this glass ceiling, in the next year we will run workshops, internships, and mentoring programs for 300 female university students and 100 women in middle management. These will be held in Colombo, Kandy, Ampara, and Jaffna.
I must say, when I address business chambers and associations or visit boardrooms for briefings here, often I am the only woman in the room. This was very true in the United States in the not so distant past but it is changing. The situation must also change here in Sri Lanka. There is so much talent, energy and creativity among its women waiting to be tapped and utilized to help this country and society move ahead. No country, mine, yours or anyone's, can afford to waste this resource.
We are very pleased to be able to promote leadership and entrepreneurship among women in Sri Lanka. You have my personal commitment that this is an important issue for me, and I look forward to working with the Women's Chamber to continue to highlight the critical role of women entrepreneurs. Finally, I want to congratulate the Women Entrepreneur of the Year! This is exactly the type of women role models that we need, women who have overcome all sorts of obstacles usually while also raising a family. I applaud your hard work and accomplishments.
Thank you for your attention and keep pushing.