Remarks by Thomas Kress, Program Office Director

Friday, March 27, 2015
Delivered at the International Conference on Gender, Diversity, and Development

Assalamu Aleikum, nomoshkar, and good morning!

I am delighted to be with you today on the beautiful campus of Dhaka University to open the International Conference on Gender, Diversity, and Development. Today, and throughout this event, we celebrate the achievements that Bangladesh has made in empowering women. More importantly, this conference provides a platform for us all to discuss the challenges ahead – challenges that we must address now – to fully affect change and achieve true equality for all women and girls.

Bangladeshi women have made enormous strides since the country’s birth in 1971. They have achieved political empowerment, better job prospects, and improved education. Women have been the engine behind the amazing growth of the ready-made garment industry, which is now number 2 in the world – second only to China. Women now constitute approximately 80 percent of the workforce in this hugely important industry.

In recent years, Bangladesh has also adopted laws to prevent domestic violence and protect domestic violence survivors. And through the leadership of the Ministry of Women’s and Children’s Affairs, Bangladesh is now pursuing an official National Action Plan to Prevent Violence against Women and Children. All of these are major achievements and I could cite a number of others. Last summer at the Girls Summit, which took place in London, the Honorable Prime Minister made an important commitment to end child marriage in Bangladesh. The government, quite admirably, has undertaken efforts to revise, modernize and strengthen the existing law – a law that dates back to 1929 – relating to the prevention of child marriage. We hope that a new, stronger and more modern law on child marriage prevention will be passed

We are very pleased that the government has reemphasized its commitment to the age of 18 as the legal minimum age of marriage for girls. At the same time, we are quite concerned to see press reports suggesting that the government is thinking of including counterproductive language allowing early marriage with parental consent. A provision allowing 16 and 17 year old children to marry with parental consent would seriously undermine the new law’s intended goal – the goal of putting an end to the harmful practice of child marriage once and for all

The destructive impact of child marriage on the physical and mental health of girls, on girls’ education and economic opportunities, and on the health and welfare of their children are all being increasingly recognized, as is the strong, ugly link between child marriage and gender-based violence. This growing awareness is thanks in part to the work of many of you who are gathered here today. One of the most important points to emphasize on International Women’s Day and throughout this conference is that women’s rights are human rights. And the welfare of women is inextricably linked to the welfare of the society and of the nation as a whole. Anyone who is serious about wanting Bangladesh to progress has to be serious about ensuring that women progress. The Government of Bangladesh has enunciated the goal – the very ambitious but achievable goal – of reaching middle income status by 2021. To accomplish this, women and girls must have equal access to opportunities needed to succeed in life.

When women and girls have equal opportunity to attend school and complete their education; and when they have equal access to technology, information, and job opportunities, they will make a difference not only in their own lives but also in the lives of their families, their communities, and their nation. Equal opportunities for education and jobs for all Bangladeshi women, as well as men, are very important for Bangladesh. Bangladesh cannot expect to achieve its full potential until all of its citizens – the women as well as the men – are achieving their full potential. It cannot expect to reach middle income status if fully half of its citizens – the female half – are left behind.

Change is never easy. And changing society’s attitudes and norms toward women on a large scale is even more difficult, not only in Bangladesh, but in any country. But change is what we need in order to ensure equal rights for women and girls, and this change begins within each one of us. Change also requires a unified voice to advocate for equality. This is what brings us together today. I am hopeful that throughout this conference, we can identify ways to strengthen our partnerships to make our voice – and the voices of women and girls – ring loud and clear to signal that change is on the way today for a brighter, healthier, and more prosperous tomorrow – for all females and for all of Bangladesh.

USAID is committed to working with our partners in Bangladesh to realize this vision of gender equality and fully empowering women and girls. Only then is it possible to unlock the full social and economic potential of this country and realize the common vision of a middle-income Bangladesh.

Before I close, I want to acknowledge the Government of Bangladesh’s efforts in promoting women’s empowerment and protecting women’s rights. In particular, I want to thank the honorable Minister of Women and Children’s Affairs for her leadership in these efforts. I also want to thank the faculty and staff of Dhaka University, especially the honorable Vice-Chancellor, hosting this event. Your enthusiasm and support have been invaluable. And finally, I thank all of you who are participating in this conference. Your influence and leadership are more important than ever. I encourage you all to take what you learn during this seminar and continue to champion women’s rights in your communities and throughout all of Bangladesh.


Thank you very much. Onek dhonnobad!

University of Dhaka
Issuing Country