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Lotus Circle Advisor Janet Montag: “Give Girls a Voice and the Tools to Change Their Lives.”

June 3, 2015

This week in New York City, The Asia Foundation’s fifth annual Lotus Leadership Awards honored two acclaimed women leaders – women’s rights advocate Ranjana Kumari, director of India’s Centre for Social Research, and Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist and author Sheryl WuDunn. In anticipation of the awards gala, In Asia spoke with Lotus Circle Advisor Janet Montag, a philanthropist and community leader widely traveled in Asia and a former trustee of the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh. We asked her what she thinks are the greatest challenges facing women in Asia today.

In many countries across Asia, women and girls are still not recognized as valuable contributors to society. This translates into many challenges such as violence against women, lack of access to education, arranged marriages, sex trafficking, and lack of access to health care, including information on reproductive health. Basic rights such as personal safety and adequate sanitation facilities are also often absent. Financial literacy and access to technology are limited. Just thinking about this question is overwhelming when you string all the challenges together. Progress has been made, but there is still a long way to go.

Lotus Circle Advisor Janet Montag (far right) with Columbia University's Dr. Kathleen M. Pike (center) and The Asia Foundation's Amory Sharpe. Photo/Whitney Legge

Lotus Circle Advisor Janet Montag (far right) with Columbia University’s Dr. Kathleen M. Pike (center) and The Asia Foundation’s Amory Sharpe. Photo/Whitney Legge

You have been involved in The Asia Foundation’s Lotus Circle for several years and are a member of this year’s Gala Leadership Committee. How do you describe the work of the Women’s Empowerment Program and the Lotus Circle to others who are interested in effecting change for women in Asia?

The Asia Foundation stands out from other organizations in the depth of its local expertise in addressing Asia’s most pressing challenges. In describing the work of the Women’s Empowerment Program and the Lotus Circle, I explain that The Asia Foundation has been doing work on the ground for sixty years, so they know the local landscape. They have built the trust of authorities and governments and have powerful programs to improve lives in Asia.

The Lotus Circle is a small group of advisors who wish to advance the rights and opportunities of women by supporting the Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program. Empowering women is such a vital need in our world today, and this is such an effective and powerful way to make a difference. The programs chosen are creative and sustainable because of the Foundation’s expertise. I thoroughly enjoy working with such bright and thoughtful women leaders.

The Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program focuses on education, economic empowerment, political participation, and rights and security. Is there a particular project or issue area that has special significance for you?

I am interested in all those areas, but my energy and resources have been directed towards the education of women. Living abroad and traveling throughout Asia exposed me to the poverty and inequality that exist in our world. One of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals was achieving universal access to primary education, and now 90 percent of children in developing nations are in primary school. But where will these children continue their education?

With this concern in mind, I chose to work on an initiative focused on higher education. With a small, dedicated team and a grand plan, I helped found a university in Bangladesh for Asian women. It has been humbling and rewarding to see the girls come from extreme challenges such as war-torn countries, poverty, and violence in their homes and receive a liberal arts education and develop their leadership skills. Some have gone on to earn their master’s degrees and have found jobs in their home countries.

There is no doubt that educating a girl transforms lives and communities. The Asia Foundation understands this better than anyone. They provide scholarships for girls at the secondary and university levels – taking advantage of the great progress that’s been made at the primary level – and in Afghanistan they helped to renovate some of the largest schools for women and girls in Kabul. The Foundation also sees the need to educate women to increase their earning potential. For example, in Nepal, the Foundation trained women in non-traditional vocational skills like motorcycle maintenance. Another initiative that I work with is Girl Rising, a global campaign for girls’ education. They’re rolling out a campaign in India this fall that will reach 750 million people.

The Lotus Leadership Awards gala raises critical funds for innovative projects to improve the lives of women and girls across Asia. In prior years, the event has highlighted issues, such as human trafficking, women’s limited access to finance, and the importance of educating girls, for an audience of executives, diplomats, and philanthropists. What would you and your fellow Lotus Circle advisors like to highlight as a key message at this year’s gala?

Our message this year is the importance of women’s empowerment in building stronger families, communities, and nations. We know how transformative investing in women can be, but we also know there’s still a long way to go toward achieving gender equality. The World Economic Forum publishes the Global Gender Gap Report – a resource that measures gender disparities across many countries and serves as a tool to track progress. For example, it highlights the gap in women’s economic participation, particularly at management and executive levels. The UN has estimated that the Asia-Pacific region would grow by an additional $89 billion annually if women were able to achieve their full economic potential. Some recent research sponsored by the Foundation has provided data on barriers to women in business in Southeast Asia. It’s an area where we can do much more to close the gender gap and increase overall economic well-being.

Tell Her She Can is the Lotus Circle’s global awareness campaign and their message to women and girls. What is your own message to women and girls in developing Asia?

The world is changing rapidly, and the Lotus Circle wants to give girls a voice and the tools to improve their lives. We know that traditions are important, but traditions that expose girls to violence and keep them from meeting their full potential must be challenged and changed. Every woman’s contribution is important. We also need to send the message that both girls and boys are responsible for the health, prosperity, and safety of our world.

It is an honor to give to such a meaningful organization doing such fine work. Thank you to the Lotus Circle and The Asia Foundation!

Related locations: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal
Related programs: Empower Women, Lotus Circle
Related topics: Education, Gender Gap

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