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Tamar Abrams

Tamar Abrams

Posted: October 25, 2010 10:45 PM

In a meeting room surrounded by lush tropical landscaping, 20 women from Southeast Asia are meeting in Jakarta to develop their leadership, management and advocacy skills. As one participant, from Papua New Guinea, says, "Before, I learned through trial and error. Here I am learning how to avoid making mistakes." CEDPA's Global Women in Management (GWM) program -- supported by ExxonMobil Foundation's Women's Economic Opportunity Initiative -- has trained hundreds of women from all over the world to advance their economic power in the developing world. Some have gone on to hold public office, to start their own businesses and to send their own daughters to post-secondary education. Like those women, these 20 have agreed to be sequestered for four weeks in order to participate in the intensive series of trainings, workshops and discussions.

Jakarta is a city of stark contrasts -- searing poverty and grand skyscrapers, Honda minivans fighting for space on the crowded streets with countless motorbikes, mosques broadcasting the call to prayer five times a day and well-attended Sunday church services. Just in the past week, monsoon-like rains have closed down much of the city while the volcano Mount Merapi on Java is showing signs of an imminent eruption and an earthquake struck the west coast of Sumatra. Weather, earth and sky co-exist in an uneasy yet symbiotic relationship with the people.

The women in this room come from starkly different backgrounds -- some from Papua New Guinea, one from Egypt, others from Thailand, China, Indonesia and the Philippines. One has a Ph.D., others have had fewer opportunities. But all are engaged in working within their communities to improve the lives of women and their families. The programs they are working on range from expanding microfinance projects to creating economic opportunities for women to helping indigenous women learn to make and sell crafts. English is not the primary language of any of them, but they struggle to use it as the means of communicating with one another. They are asked to make presentations, to learn from and teach one another, to engage with a series of experienced trainers brought in by CEDPA to work with them on budgeting to fundraising to communicating with target audiences. Some wear the Muslim headscarf, some wear Indonesian batik clothing and others are more westernized.

As an observer from the United States, it is a privilege to watch these women grow and stretch. Even after an eight-hour day, they remain in the meeting room to continue discussing the day's topic. They know that the resources expended to increase their skills are limited, and that they are part of a small number of women who applied and were accepted to the program. In another week, this month-long workshop will end and they will return to their villages and communities with the knowledge they've gained. As GWIM alumni, they will be encouraged to participate in an ongoing coaching program and to stay in contact with the women they've met here.

It would be impossible to attend this workshop and not wish there were dozens more taking place in the developing world each day. Women are clearly the economic drivers in many communities, capable of contributing greatly to improving the lives and futures of all around them. So it seems almost too cliched to urge everyone to follow CEDPA and ExxonMobil's lead by investing in women. And yet clearly -- judging by the plans of women in a conference room in Jakarta -- investing in women pays.