10/04/2012 10:06 am ET Updated Dec 04, 2012

Burma's Women Give Hope for Country's Future

Note: Today's blog is co-written with Katherine Pickus, vice president of the Abbott Fund, the foundation of the global health care company Abbott.

2012 has been a remarkable year for Burma. Under President Thein Sein's leadership, we have seen electoral reforms, the release of hundreds of political prisoners, the formalizing of diplomatic relations between our two countries, and Aung San Suu Kyi's historic visit to the United States, all of which have brought immense hope and a sense of possibility to the people of Burma and all of us who care deeply about their future. Earlier this year, with colleagues from the State Department and private sector foundation leaders, we visited Burma to shine a spotlight on issues relating to women and girls at this crucial moment in history.

We have no illusions about the future. From a dearth of basic infrastructure, to the many political prisoners still languishing in jail, to the ongoing ethnic violence and continuing human rights violations against women, the road toward freedom and prosperity for Burma is still far from certain.

But, at each stop we made, from Rangoon, to Naypyidaw, to the Shan state, we were struck and inspired by the spirit and energy of the women of Burma. We met with women of all ages across all sectors of society -- from the iconic and courageous Aung San Suu Kyi, to small business owners and health clinic workers, to those teaching civics to young children. We came to realize that even after years of isolation and repression, Burma's women had built a strong and resilient civil society and had found resourceful ways to meet critical needs in local communities.

The older generation of women with whom we met, who came of age before Burma's isolation from the world, were clearly the most educated. Many spoke fluent English. Many were retired civil servants or professionals and had found ways to provide some of the critical health, education, and other services to the people that the government had failed to provide. Over the years, these women had been able to operate within limited space and their activities were tolerated, to a certain extent, by the former military regime. Although very realistic, they uniformly expressed a cautious sense of hopefulness about the future.

The younger generation -- those in their teens and 20's -- appeared most optimistic and energized about Burma's future. Many are engaged in social entrepreneurship and have started or are participating in NGOs. They've become increasingly empowered to embrace their rights, whether in the home, in the workplace, in community and political activities or at the university.

While Burma has the experienced older generation to anchor society and the young generation to break new ground, the "missing middle" generation poses a challenge to Burma's transition because for years, they had been deprived of any opportunity to receive education and contribute to society. Most of the identified "missing middle" women leaders are former political prisoners and victims of the collapse of Burma's education and university systems. These courageous women paid a severe price for their political activism in labor rights, land rights, HIV/AIDS, and democracy promotion. Many of them left the country during the most oppressive years, but some have chosen to return. While it would be easy for these women to retreat into bitterness, they are moving forward, taking advantage of the recent opening to test the progress by creating NGOs, building women's networks, supporting women workers to negotiate for better conditions and higher pay, and advocating for women in ethnic communities. Recently released from prison, many have already returned to the political arena. One former prisoner was elected to the parliament during the latest by-election. Their resilience might just be the most powerful force moving the country forward.

If Burma is to meet its full potential, we've got to find ways to engage and empower all three generations of women. For the older generation, this calls for supporting those individuals and grassroots organizations already implementing successful community work. The younger generation, as a crucial part of the Burmese workforce, will need guidance and support to become effective advocates for women, and the future leaders of Burma's social and economic transformation. For the "missing middle generation," we need to provide critical capacity building services and advocate for their close involvement and advancement in Burmese society.

There are promising signs that the international community is listening, and implementing initiatives that empower women and broader civil society in the country. The U.S. Secretary of State's International Fund for Women and Girls and the Abbott Fund recently announced a public-private partnership to help women in Burma. With U.S. $1 million from the Abbott Fund, over the next two years we will work with local grassroots organizations to advance health, education and economic opportunity across communities in Burma. The State Department, too, is boosting its exchange programs with Burma -- from Fulbright scholarships to the International Visitors Leadership Program -- so that more women can gain the team-building networking, education and capacity-building opportunities so crucial to their future success.

Burma, a country suffering from decades of internal ethnic conflicts, cannot secure peace and prosperity without the equal participation of its people of all ethnicities, religions, or gender. A recent Asian Development Bank report says Burma is poised to accelerate growth. This means businesswomen's access to capital and market needs to improve so they can help create a new, inclusive and sustainable economy. As the international community considers the most effective ways to support the people of Burma, it must focus on empowerment of the people, including the most marginalized and women. Aung San Suu Kyi once said, "Development must be about individual empowerment" -- the ability of the people to let go of fear and to take action on behalf of themselves, their communities and their country. For too long, Burmese women have been unable to realize their full potential; now we've got to listen to their needs and fully integrate them into the political, economic, and social processes to ensure Burma's success.