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Empowering women in India key goal for US State Dept

July 18, 2012 10:19 IST

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Dr Alyssa Ayres, the keynote speaker at the National Federation of Indian American Association's conference on Women's Empowerment, has declared that promoting women's empowerment in India is a key goal of the United States administration, particularly Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Incidentally, Ayres has earlier lived in and written extensively on India and South Asia and is a fluent speaker of Hindi and Urdu.
Ayres is also married to an Indian American -- scholar in residence at the American Enterprise Institute's Sadanand Dhume who also heads this neo-conservative think tank's South Asia Programme.

She said the Obama administration had "a lot of initiatives underway focused on the empowerment of women and we are certainly collaborating on women's issues with the government of India." 

She said, "Women's empowerment is a key policy goal for the Obama administration and the State Department, Secretary (of State, Hillary) Clinton has made women's empowerment a high priority for everything that we do -- she has elevated the focus on women's empowerment, appointing the first-ever Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues Melanee Verveer."

Ayres added that Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake "is a great supporter and believer in the benefits of ensuring that girls and women are given the tools they need wherever they live in the world to reach their full potential."

She noted that in terms of India, the administration had launched "a  number of extremely promising initiatives that focus on some of these issues," under the rubric of the US-India Women's Empowerment Dialogue, launched in 2010, as a way for both the US and India to "learn from each others' experiences and knowledge."

Ayres said the third meeting of the US-India Women's Empowerment Dialogue held in February in New York,  co-chaired by Secretary Neela Gangadharan of the ministry of women and child development, and Ambassador Verveer had "compared perspectives and shared best practices in both countries related to women's social and economic empowerment, political participation of women, early childhood education, skill development of women and girls, and strengthening of institutional linkages and exchanges."

"They reviewed the progress that institutions in the US and India have already achieved and discussed new ideas to take the dialogue forward," she said.

Ayres said that a major priority for the US administration was supporting women's self-help groups in India.

"I am sure many of you are familiar with the extraordinary self-help groups in India such as the Self Employed Women's Association or SEWA.  There are an estimated three million self-help groups in India representing 33 million members. The groups develop their members' leadership abilities, increase school enrollments, address access to justice issues, and improve nutrition for women and children. Self-help groups in India also represent the largest microfinance effort in the world," she said.

She added, "Since self-help groups are often only able to develop products for their local communities, they need training to take their products to the next level, so that they are marketable in the international context and are equipped with skills they need to negotiate."

Ayres said another priority was panchaayat training, where in addition, "to try and institutionalise lasting change, our office of Global Women's Issues is focused on increasing the representation of women in government and building the capacity of women political leaders, particularly at the local level."

"To that end, we are working with the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh, the only pan-Asian University in the region, to support a training program for women political leaders from South Asia. At least one million women currently serve in panchaayats in India," she noted, and added, "this training will focus on leadership capacity-building for these local leaders whose potential impact can have transformative effects in improving rural lives."

Ayres, exhorting the Indian American community to also get involved in these public-private partnerships, declared, "Since we are all here tonight, we probably all agree that educating women and girls is of critical importance. Educating girls, especially in developing countries, is beneficial for entire families, economies and societies."

She argued that in India and the other South Asian countries, as with the rest of the developing world, "Educated women produce fewer and healthier children and can invest more in those children."

She also said, "They are less likely to be married at a young age, and with educational and economic opportunities, are less vulnerable to becoming victims of human trafficking."

Ayres pointed out, "The social benefits of educating girls are undeniable but so too are the economic benefits. Countries where girls' education has traditionally lagged behind boys' education also lag behind in overall economic development."

Aziz Haniffa In Washington, DC