Building a Network of Change-Makers in South Asia

South Asia regional economic network members

In late January, CIPE held its sixth in a series of capacity building and networking workshops in Colombo for its South Asia regional network of women’s business associations, which includes organizations from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and India. When CIPE began to work with this group of women business leaders two years ago, the sessions focused primarily on issues such as board governance, strategic planning, staff and financial management, membership development, and services for members.

But between training modules, discussion often turned to the challenges facing women entrepreneurs in their countries, including policy barriers that tend to create a business environment unfriendly to women. Thus, CIPE always knew that eventually, the focus of the program must turn to advocacy for policy reform.

As a result, CIPE increasingly began to raise issues of policy – and policy advocacy – in the context of the training sessions. Then, last summer, CIPE awarded four women’s associations in three countries small grants by CIPE to carry out pilot, four-month advocacy projects.

One point that had frequently arisen in the training program was a lack of understanding of the complexities of policy advocacy, such as: identifying issues of concern to members; developing concrete policy proposals and specific recommendations to tackle those issues; the hard work involved in reaching out to policymakers; the need to broadly engage the media, association members, and the general public; and the need to track results and assess the impact of advocacy initiatives.

Moreover, the countries where the advocacy initiatives took place – Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Nepal – are challenging environments. During the four months that these organizations were implementing their small grants, each country faced political turbulence that may have shaken the resolve of less dedicated change-makers.

To help these organizations carry out their programs – given that many of them were working on advocacy for the first time – CIPE augmented the small grants with constant feedback from CIPE staff, as well as mentorship from some of the more experienced organizations in the network. A key mentor is Selima Ahmad, founder of the Bangladesh Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BWCCI), who has worked to instill a passion for advocacy among the network’s members. The recent session in Colombo gave the participants the opportunity to show the results of their hard work, and the initial milestones they achieved in strengthening the voice of women in the policy process.

In Pakistan, the South Punjab and Peshawar Women’s Chambers of Commerce formed a coalition to tackle their issue – to increase the commercial loan repayment period for artisans from 180 days to 360 days. Both Multan, in South Punjab, and Peshawar, are home to large artisan communities made up mainly of women working on hand embroidery and handcrafted textiles. Both cities are also known as turbulent regions. Peshawar is often in the news for brazen acts of terror, including at attack on a school that occurred while the chambers were working on their project. Both cities are known to be challenging for women from the point of view of religious extremism and restrictive cultural norms.

Despite the pressure on many women in those cities to remain anonymous, these two chambers pushed the government to change a policy that was impeding the earning potential of women artisans. Eventually, through focus group sessions, and sharing recommendations for reform, the State Bank issued policy instructions that led to the lengthening of the amount of time that artisans have to pay back their loans. This extended credit will help them in fulfilling orders, and allows them to plan purchases and sales further in advance, with less pressure for rapid repayment. In this way, the chambers’ first effort at advocacy was a success.

After working on this program, Masooma Sibtain of the South Punjab Women’s Chambers remarked that “CIPE is the only organization helping women in Multan, we are thankful.” Shamama Arbab of the Peshawar Women’s Chamber elaborated, “In an area of Pakistan riddled by conflict, where we hope every step we take is not on an explosive, we are thankful for this achievement.”

She added, “We never realized that constructive and good things are easily achievable, all we need to do is move in the right direction with sincerity. We were struggling to achieve our goals to make the ecosystem more conducive for women, but CIPE helped us learn to prioritize, and help each other.”

In Sri Lanka, the Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce (WCIC) advocated for the passage of a gender-sensitive policy on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Despite its formation 30 years ago, this was the organizations first real experience with policy advocacy. The advocacy campaign was complicated by the timing of historic political events in the country: snap presidential elections were called, and led to the surprise election of an opposition candidate who campaigned against an incumbent who many feared was taking the country down the path of authoritarianism. The election season was fraught was fear of violence, creating an unstable backdrop for WCIC’s work.

The new government welcomed WCIC’s recommendation, and the new gender-sensitive SME policy was swiftly passed. Indeed, the new government has prioritized increasing the role of women in business, and has asked WCIC representatives to sit on the board of the Ministry of Industry to help shape policy, giving yet another platform for women’s voices to be heard in the policy sphere.

“CIPE was instrumental in the Chamber embarking on policy advocacy for women entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka,” said Sarrah Sammoon of WCIC. “We never expected to succeed in our request to the government. But through CIPE’s workshops and training, we saw examples from around South Asia, and we got support and motivation from our mentors, which has been invaluable for our Chamber.”

In Nepal, the issue taken up by the Federation of Women Entrepreneurs’ Associations of Nepal (FWEAN) was to push for full implementation of a bill that had languished in Parliament for years, designed to help women-owned SMEs. While FWEAN was working on its program, Nepal’s ongoing struggle to complete its nearly nine-year peace process by passing a new constitution once again flared up – including with an outright brawl in Parliament. Thus getting anything passed on the legislative side was clearly going to be a challenge for FWEAN.

Yet FWEAN reached out to government ministries interested in moving the bill forward, holding a number of events to publicize the importance of the issue. As a result of the positive response from the government, FWEAN is now seen as a credible representative of women in business, able to get things done – and as a result, the organization’s membership continues to grow.

FWEAN has been invited to join meetings on SME policy at the Ministry of Industry and Ministry of Commerce. “I never thought that working to implement one policy change would open doors to get other opportunities for FWEAN,” said FWEAN Chair Rita Bhandari. “Now we are invited to sit on different government commissions to be the voice of women in SME policy.”

CIPE’s plans with this network continue to expand. In a few weeks, the network will again convene for a meeting in Delhi, where many of the key participants will speak on a panel at a conference organized by the National Endowment for Democracy, of which CIPE is a core institute. The panel will focus on the importance of gender-equitable economic development to the success of democracy. In addition, in March in New York, CIPE organized the participation of Selima Ahmad from BWCCI at a US Chamber of Commerce conference marking International Women’s Day – during which time Ahmad was able to speak about her work to a live TV audience on the BBC. When the network meets in June, the participants will kick off a new round of advocacy programs, with a larger funding base, allowing them to do even more for the women entrepreneurs of their countries.

Despite the challenging political, social, cultural, economic and security environments facing women entrepreneurs and women’s chambers in South Asia, through this project, CIPE and its partners have been able to show that when equipped with the right capabilities and know-how, women’s business organizations can effect positive change, working with the government to reform policies and improve the lives of women in business. These women have had their first advocacy successes – and now look forward to bringing down more policy barriers one by one.

Jennifer Anderson is a Program Officer for South Asia at CIPE.

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