Notes from the Field

Encountering Asia’s Empowered Women

March 28, 2012

The most lasting impression of my first trip to South Asia is the empowered women I met at every turn. Asia’s economic future depends less on finding a new technology or development strategy and more on expanding opportunities for women. Governments that fail to get this do so at their own peril.

Korean girl groups might be taking the music 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 dynamic and colorful MOFAT Director General Park Eun-ha. Park is the same dashing diplomat who hosted the largest-ever gathering on development assistance in Busan last November. In both New Delhi and Busan, Park made an indelible impression on participants. She also serves as a role model for Korea’s swelling ranks of female diplomats.

My next stop was Kathmandu, where I met with another Korean trailblazer, Doh Young-a, 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 over 50 percent today. Doh manages over $9 million in development projects in one of Asia’s poorest countries. Kathmandu’s roads are about as flat as the Himalayas one can see in the distance when the city is not being choked by pollution.

Doh and I visited an education and training center for women in a village outside Kathmandu. The center teaches 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 languished 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 café she runs in the next town. She arrived 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 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 specializing in early childhood education. One worked in the Ministry of Education and the other in an orphanage. 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 million development project with KOICA. Sri Lanka is more politically stable and a few rungs higher on the development ladder, but like Nepal, suffered through a tragic civil war. Ironically, slums in Sri Lanka are still called “Koreas,” a legacy of Sri Lanka’s participation 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 arrived 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-thirties. 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 Indian Ocean Tsunami. One entire village was swept away and more than 600 residents were killed.

Despite a spectacular coastline and a 400-year-old fort built by the Portuguese, Batticaloa has few tourists. Mayor Prabaharan explained to me her vision and aspirations for her city. With the help of The Asia 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 facilitate or impede this process?

*This is a revised version of an article published in Korean in JoongAng Sunday on March 25, 2012.

Peter Beck is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Korea. He can be reached at pbeck@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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