Building Women’s Chambers and Associations in South Asia

south asia women entrepreneurship symposium

Hammad Siddiqui, Deputy Country Director for CIPE’s Pakistan field office, contributed to this report.

To begin addressing the issue of why some women’s business organizations thrive while others do not, CIPE recently launched a project to build links among women’s chambers and associations in South Asia.

CIPE identified 11 organizations, from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka – and for the first time reached out to groups from India and Bhutan – to participate. With the assistance of long-time partner the Bangladesh Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BWCCI), conducted a diagnostic survey of these organizations’ governance, finances, membership, strategic planning, advocacy, services and other issues. The organizations were then invited to participate in a networking meeting held this February in Dhaka, Bangladesh. CIPE’s efforts complement a U.S. State Department program to build links among women entrepreneurs in the region, the South Asia Women Entrepreneurship Symposium.

Women in South Asia confront a range of legal, cultural and social barriers to full economic participation. Some in the elite have risen to the top of their countries’ leadership, but for most, indicators for health and welfare, literacy and education, and income and wealth are among the world’s lowest. Certainly, South Asia has seen no shortage of various donor and government economic development programs aimed at women, but these tend to focus either on microcredit or small business development. Less attention has been paid to the building the capacity of women’s chambers of commerce and business associations, so that they in turn can benefit women entrepreneurs – both by conducting policy advocacy to improve the business climate for women, as well as providing members with the services needed to thrive in business.

For its part, CIPE has been working for several years to build the capacity of women’s chambers and business associations in South Asia, in particular in Pakistan and Bangladesh. CIPE was also instrumental in pushing for changes in Pakistan’s Trade Organization Ordinance, the law which governs chambers and associations, to allow for the establishment of women’s chambers and the inclusion of women on the boards of regional chambers.

CIPE has also explored potential partnerships with women’s business organizations in other countries in the region. In the process, CIPE has learned a great deal about the issues facing these organizations, and has begun to ask questions about the reasons for the divergence in their development and performance.

In all, 15 leaders of women’s chamber and association leaders had the opportunity to meet at CIPE’s session, to begin exchanging ideas and expertise. Participants represented national women’s chambers and associations, federations of associations, and women’s divisions of large national and major city chambers, and regional branches of BWCCI. CIPE sent a team with extensive experience in business association development, women’s chambers in particular, and networking and coalition building, consisting of CIPE Regional Director for Eurasia and South Asia Andrew Wilson, Pakistan Deputy Country Director Hammad Siddiqui, CIPE consultant Camelia Bulat, and South Asia Senior Program Officer Marc Schleifer.

The session, which was highly interactive and discussion-based, gave the participants a chance to learn about CIPE’s approach to issues such as association governance, communications, membership, finances and advocacy; review the results of the diagnostic, and hear from BWCCI founder Selima Ahmad about her organization’s successful growth. The participants then formed mentorship teams, linking stronger organizations with less-developed ones, to encourage the sharing of ideas, best practices, and experiences. Among other specific ideas, the participants have pledged to share sample business plans, strategic plans, training modules, lists of services provided to members, and so on.

The enthusiasm of the participants for this initiative is captured in a number of the comments shared with the CIPE staff. Among others, Rezani Aziz, who is launching a new apex body of Sri Lankan women’s associations, noted that the session was “a great learning curve for me, and I can’t wait to put some of it to action. Sri Lanka needs to get cracking on implementing the learning – and then we have a reason to get CIPE and you all down to our country.”

From FICCI FLO, the women’s division of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Dr. Manju Parkash explained “The wonderful bonding that ensued during the time is for keeps. The informal atmosphere at the workshop helped in bringing out the very best of each.” Further, Shamama Arbab from Pakistan’s Peshawar Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry said, “The workshop was an extremely useful exercise. I not only developed contacts with women’s chambers in the region, but also learned their challenges and success factors. In the short run, the aim is to undertake at least one policy advocacy initiative in the next couple of months.”

Overall, as Selima Ahmad noted, “I truly feel that we are a great group and we should continue and strengthen our network.” The participants have now pledged to take part in a follow-up meeting in Nepal in the spring. Should that meeting prove successful, CIPE’s aim is to try to turn this loose network into a virtual coalition of women business associations in the region.

Marc Schleifer is Senior Program Officer for South Asia at CIPE.

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