Exploring the Connections Between Women’s Economic Empowerment and Democracy

This post is Part 1 in a series. Read Part 2 here.

CIPE’s focus both on how economic growth strengthens democracy, and on how sound democratic institutions are needed to make an economy function smoothly, directly bears on women’s political and economic empowerment in South Asia. In March 2015, CIPE staff participated in a conference in Delhi entitled “Strengthening Democracy in Asia: Inclusion, Participation and Rights,” organized by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the World Movement for Democracy, the Asia Democracy Network, and the Institute of Social Sciences.

As one of the four core institutes of the NED, CIPE was invited to organize a panel at the conference, and selected the issue of the links among women’s economic empowerment, women’s entrepreneurship, and democracy. CIPE invited five key members of its network of South Asian women’s chambers and associations to share their views as the panelists, with CIPE’s Regional Director for Eurasia and South Asia, Marc Schleifer, moderating.

Their conversation explored the ways in which CIPE’s work at the intersection of economic development and democracy ties into women’s issues in a challenging region. This post will be the first of six reflecting on CIPE’s panel at the conference, and is intended to spur a deeper conversation of these issues. Each entry in this series will build on the stories of the key members of CIPE’s South Asian network, illuminated by the questions that Schleifer posed during the panel to these South Asian leaders, as follows:

  1. In what ways do private enterprise and entrepreneurship help spark economic empowerment for women and lead to improved political participation among women?
  2. What are some motivating factors that encourage women to move beyond growing their businesses to start civil society organizations, in order to give back to other women?
  3. Why is it important to focus on scaling women-owned businesses, and in what ways is access to finance and policy change a part of that scaling process?
  4. How do these women’s business organizations approach the issue of policy advocacy? What kinds of policy challenges do women in business in your countries face? And how are your organizations working to tackle those issues?

As the panelists made clear, shifting cultural norms is never an easy task – the work that goes into improving both the social and business environment for women takes years. The powerful and inspiring women in CIPE’s South Asia network shared their personal experiences in growing their businesses, launching their organizations, and working to foster inclusive economic growth and women’s political and economic empowerment. These women are working in environments where social, cultural and religious norms – not to mention formal laws and regulations – have often made it difficult for women to operate businesses, as well as to start such civil society organizations.

As Schleifer noted toward the end of the panel, even in the U.S. many of these issues are far from resolved. Moreover, the story of women’s participation in business in the U.S. is not always fully appreciated. For example, it was recently reported that 92-year Mary Doyle Keefe, likely the original model for “Rosie the Riveter,” passed away this month. The Rosie image was originally designed to encourage increased factory productivity during World War II, but eventually came to symbolize the expanded role of women in the U.S. economy, and eventually in U.S. politics – but through a labor lens. Much less well known is the important role that women played as small business owners in the U.S., both during and immediately after World War II.

For example, who remembers “The Wartime Wife,” a regular column in The Boston Globe, giving women a range of entrepreneurial, home-based business ideas? Further, how well do we remember that New York Governor Thomas Dewey, seeking to rejuvenate the economy by reestablishing 100,000 small businesses lost during the war, designed a program to provide training and counseling to women entrepreneurs? That program was eventually adapted for use in 20 other states, as the number of women business owners in America rose from 600,000 to nearly one million.

If the stories of women like Dorothy Chase, whose pickled herring business moved from her kitchen to its own facility with 50 employees and annual sales of more than $250,000 within three years, or Grace Bell, a Harlem housewife who turned her penchant for cooking into a thriving business, or Lillian Vernon, who started a business in 1951 that eventually grew to annual sales of nearly $240 million are not well publicized, then what of the stories of Selima Ahmad from Bangladesh, or Masooma Sibtain and Shamama Arbab from Pakistan, or Rita Bhandari of Nepal? Who will tell their stories? That will be the focus of this important series of blogs. CIPE looks forward to your comments and ideas.

The full panel can be viewed at https://youtu.be/oQHn1h2fo4Q.

Rachel Grossman is an Assistant Program Officer for Eurasia and South Asia at CIPE.

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