04/09/2015 03:29 pm ET Updated Jun 09, 2015

At the Summit of the Americas, Leaders Should Remember Women Are Key to Success

Courtesy of Catherine Russell

Photo: Ambassador Cathy Russell meets with women in Guatemala in October 2014.

This year for the first time, the Summit of the Americas will include representatives from all 35 countries of the Americas. This historic level of participation is good news. After all, we need to engage the entire region to tackle key issues -- and girls and women need to be a part of the conversation.

That's why I'm joining President Obama, Secretary Kerry and other U.S. officials in Panama this week for the Seventh Summit of the Americas. Here are some of the issues I'll be focused on during my trip.

1. Gender-based violence.
Last year I traveled to Guatemala, where I met a woman who told me that in her country just being a woman is a courageous act. Women in Guatemala experience extraordinarily high levels of gender-based violence, including femicide. But Guatemala is not alone. Every single country attending the Summit -- including the United States -- struggles with gender-based violence. From intimate partner violence to rape and sexual assault, women and girls who experience violence are held back from fully participating in their societies.

As our delegations exchange ideas on how to promote democracy and human rights, spur economic growth and improve security, we need to remember that this issue stands in our way. A woman shouldn't need courage to face her partner or walk to work. And a country -- indeed, the entire region -- shouldn't lose out on the economic contributions of women because they aren't safe, secure or valued.

2. Civil society.
The grassroots organizations of a country can perform miracles. They can advocate for better laws, launch innovative programs and make a real, lasting difference. But that can only happen if governments collaborate with civil society to achieve progress. A strong and robust civil society helps bring key issues and on-the-ground perspectives to every public policy discussion and debate. And civil society--especially one with a focus on the issues facing women and girls -- gives everyone the opportunity to participate in shaping their future and the future of their country.

3. Economic opportunity for women.
Last year, I went to Chile to attend the Women's Entrepreneurship in the Americas (WEAmericas) conference. While there I met a woman from Paraguay named Norah, who owns her own children's clothing business. Norah told me that she and other entrepreneurs she knows have the drive to be successful. What they lack, however, are the necessary technical skills and capacity that will enable them to take their business to the next level.

There are so many women who want to open their own businesses or grow the businesses they already own. And they're absolutely capable. They have the ambition and the potential -- they just need the resources.

Prosperity must include everyone, and that means everyone should have the opportunity to fully participate in her country's economy. If every country attending the Summit prioritized economic opportunities for women like Norah, their GDPs would increase. According to the World Bank, the growth in female income accounted for 30 percent of extreme poverty reduction in Latin America and the Caribbean between 2000 and 2010.

When women from all background have the opportunity to graduate from a quality school, start and grow a business, own land, and live free from violence or restrictive stereotypes or discriminatory laws, everyone benefits. Families, communities, countries, and the entire region are strengthened.

These are just three ideas that will help push forward democracy, human rights, citizen security, social inclusion, and inclusive economic growth in the region. As the Summit focuses on these issues, I hope leaders from all 35 countries remember that girls and women are critical to success.