Reflecting on Davos: The Women and Girls of the Forgotten Continent

One hundred million.

That's the number of Latin American women in the workforce today. It's a powerful critical mass in my home region: 100 million agents of change who will help their families escape poverty, build a middle class and fuel regional economic growth.

But as important as that number is, it's deceiving. Although nearly 23 million women have joined the labor force in Latin America and the Caribbean over the past decade, women represent just 41 percent of the population at work.

At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, I met with leaders from all around the globe to stress the importance of women to the economy, their participation in family businesses and their entrepreneurial potential.

It's a critical message, because in many ways Latin America remains "the forgotten continent" on the world stage.

The United States, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and China take precedence in policy circles. My message at Davos was 'yes, those are important regions, but let me tell you about Latin America and the successes and challenges of its 600 million people, especially its women and girls.'

Michael Reid's 2008 book The Forgotten Continent observed that Latin America is a victim of benign neglect, "neither poor enough to attract pity or aid, nor dangerous enough to excite strategic calculation, nor until recently grown fast enough economically to quicken boardroom pulses." Seven years later, the world's eyes and dollars continue to be focused on flashpoints elsewhere.

That may be because Latin America has made enormous strides, with regional economies growing consistently and even rebounding faster than expected from the global recession -- thanks in part to the contributions of the region's women.

For Latin America's recent successes to continue, we need the moral and financial support of the United States and the world to buttress the gains we have made. We especially need to support our women and girls with laws, policies and programs that contribute to gender equality.

Here's why: Women's earnings contributed to a 30 percent reduction in extreme poverty in Latin America between 2000 and 2010, according to the World Bank. By supporting girls' and women's education and training in business, we can literally lift an entire region out of poverty. The empowerment of women and girls has become a global conversation: that much was evident at Davos. However, attention has largely focused on Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Where Latin American women hold the keys to unlocking the region's potential, we have lessons for other countries, too. And we have an opportunity to share what we have learned--for education, entrepreneurship and empowerment--this May at the World Economic Forum in Mexico. I'm personally looking forward to welcoming world leaders to my country to talk about how we can support the dreams of 100 million women, their mothers, sisters and daughters--and our future.