[Seoul Lounge] Meeting Asia’s empowered women

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[Seoul Lounge] Meeting Asia’s empowered women

The most lasting impression of my first trip to South Asia is the empow-ered women I met at every turn. Asia's economic future depends less on find-ing a new technology or development strategy and more on expanding op-portunities for women. Governments that fail to get this do so at their own peril.

Korean girl groups might be taking the world by storm, but a quieter, less visible group is helping bring about more lasting changes. In New Delhi, the head of the Korean delegation for a conference we hosted with the Korea Development Institute was the dy-namic and colorful Mofat Director General Park Eun-ha. Park is the same dashing diplomat who hosted the larg-est-ever gathering on development as-sistance in Busan last November. In both New Delhi and Busan, Park made an indelible impression on partici-pants.

My next stop was Kathmandu, where I met with another Korean trail-blazer, Doh Young-ah, the head of the Korea International Cooperation Agency's program in Nepal. Doh has seen Koica's female staff share rise from 20 percent when she joined as a founding member in 1991 to more than 50 percent today. Doh manages over $9 million in development projects in one of Asia’s poorest coun-tries.

Doh and I visited an education and training center for women in a village outside Kathmandu. The center teach-es women how to sew and make crafts and also provides microcredit loans to hundreds. The center was built by the Japanese a decade ago but had lan-guished in recent years. Two young Nepali volunteers informed us that a Korean woman, Chung Sung-mi, brought the center back to life two years ago. We tracked her down at the cafe she runs in the next town. She ar-rived in Nepal three years ago with nothing more than a fresh degree in NGO studies and a desire to help. Within months, she had established Beyond Nepal (http://beyondnepal.org/) with a Nepali lawyer.

Doh also oversees the 70 Korea oversees volunteers currently serving in Nepal. Like the rest of the 2,000 serving worldwide, the majority are women. I had dinner with two of these women volunteers who were special-izing in early childhood education.

One worked in the Ministry of Education and the other in an orphan-age. Life was not easy, but both felt like they had made a difference in the lives of the Nepalis they had worked with. Their biggest concern was what to do after their service ended.

My last stop was in Sri Lanka, where we are embarking on a $1 mil-lion development project with Koica. Sri Lanka is more politically stable and a few rungs higher on the develop-ment ladder, but like Nepal, suffered through a tragic civil war. Ironically, slums in Sri Lanka are still called "Ko-reas," a legacy of Sri Lanka's participa-tion in Korea's own civil war. Unlike most tourists, instead of searching for elephants, I was looking for potential waste disposal sites.

After nine hours of driving on a harrowing two-lane highway, I ar-rived in the east coast city of Batticaloa. I knew my first meeting was with the mayor, but what I did not know was that the mayor is an ambitious woman in her mid-30s. Sivageetha Prabaharan has seen her share of tragedy in her short life. Her father was assassinated during the civil war, and her city was one of the hardest hit by the 2004 In-dian Ocean tsunami. One entire vil-lage was swept away, and more than 600 residents were killed.

Despite a spectacular coastline and a 400-year-old fort built by the Portu-guese, Batticaloa has few tourists. Mayor Prabaharan explained to me her vision and aspirations for her city. With the help of my foundation and Koica, she is working to improve the capacity of city officials, developing a master plan for the city and forming public-private partnerships to improve public services like street lighting.

Our joint projects don't always sound exciting (capacity building!) or particularly photogenic (a parking structure!), but they will improve the quality of life of local residents and eventually attract tourists.

When I asked Mayor Prabaharan if she had faced serious gender-based obstacles, she reminded me that Sri Lanka had already elected a woman president in 1994. She did concede with a wry smile, "It isn't always easy to manage the 16 men on the City Council."

Asian women are making their presence felt like never before. The only question is, will governments fa-cilitate or impede this process?

* The author is the Asia Foundation’s country representative for Korea.

by Peter Beck
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