Yesterday I wrote about how CIPE is helping women business leaders to break down barriers in South Asia – both barriers between countries and barriers that are keeping women out of the economic mainstream. CIPE’s third networking and training session for the heads of women’s chambers of commerce and business associations, held on September 18-20 in Lahore, Pakistan, was a resounding success, including a dinner at the Lahore Chamber of Commerce that drew the Governor of Punjab as a featured speaker.
But we also wanted to take some time to focus on the training program itself, and the results of the hard work that these women are putting in to building their organizations. There is no shortage of programs in South Asia to build links among women entrepreneurs – to encourage trade and business ties – but CIPE is focused on strengthening the capacity of the chambers and associations, both so they can better represent their members in the policy process, and help their members grow their own businesses.
The biggest changes can start with small steps – particularly in the effort to change cultural barriers and to ease decades-old national tensions. Often it is the private sector, seeking to open new markets, explore possibilities, and expand trade and commerce, that is at the forefront of such changes.
Last week in Lahore, Pakistan, CIPE organized the third in its series of training and networking sessions for a group of women’s business leaders from across South Asia, helping bring about a range of positive steps – both for national understanding and opportunity for traditionally marginalized women.
This network, which CIPE has been developing with the support of the National Endowment for Democracy, includes participants from major and emerging chambers of commerce and business associations from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bhutan.
The idea to bring together representatives from these countries – particularly given the tensions between India and Pakistan, and the history between Bangladesh and Pakistan, was not guaranteed to succeed. But after two meetings, one last winter in Dhaka and then again in the spring in Kathmandu, it was becoming clear that these women business leaders were growing closer, learning from one another, sharing ideas and information, and finding ways to strengthen their organizations.
Although exact data is difficult to come by, it is estimated that women control as little as 2 percent of the land in Bangladesh. According to a survey of selected countries by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), this leaves Bangladesh tied with Mali in second to last place out of 12 countries, ahead of only Saudi Arabia. I used the FAO’s data to compare Bangladesh to some of its neighbors and found land ownership by women at 11 percent in India and the Philippines, 9 percent in Indonesia, and 8 percent in Nepal (data is not available for all countries).
This is surprising given the central role of women in Bangladesh’s economy. According to the World Bank, 90 percent of the 2.5 million workers in the garment industry are women. And the garment industry is the lifeblood of Bangladesh; it has been the only sector showing significant growth. At $20 billion, the garment industry now accounts for more than 75 percent of exports.
The role of women in Bangladesh extends far beyond the garment industry. Since 1991, two women have held the office of prime minister and 19 women have been elected to parliament beyond the 50 required by law. Despite these important contributions, women remain under-represented at all levels of society, and gender equality is still sorely lacking in many areas.
Women’s land ownership might not immediately seem to be the most important of issues. Although land ownership provides wide-ranging benefits to women, as well as their families and the economy as a whole, gender equality is a goal that needs no other justification. Nonetheless, it is worth reviewing the specific benefits of increasing the proportion of land owned by women.
“The sessions in Dhaka and Kathmandu helped develop structure and set direction and proper governance guidance to our business associations, which usually tend to be run according to individual chairperson’s goals. Setting vision and mission based on a membership needs assessment is such a simple idea that we learned…so basic but yet hardly used as we tend to overlook membership requirements in our day to day chamber activities and operations” – Rezani Aziz, Sri Lanka
Despite severe challenges, women’s business associations are playing effective roles in promoting interests of their members. However, CIPE has observed that most women’s business associations in South Asia are struggling to perform optimally.
CIPE took this challenge as an opportunity to work with a selected group of eleven business associations in the South Asia region, aiming at strengthening institutional capacity to help them become stronger advocates for their members. In the first phase of this project, CIPE organized a two-day session for the group in Dhaka in January 2013.
The second workshop for the same group was held in Kathmandu, Nepal on 22 and 23 April. After the Dhaka session, the Peshawar Women Chamber of Commerce & Industry embarked upon an advocacy project to identify barriers to women’s entrepreneurship in the terror-affected Khyber Pakhtoon Khawa region, while the Lahore Chamber of Commerce & Industry conducted a survey focusing on their 600 women members. These two case studies from Pakistan were presented to participants in Kathmandu.
BWCCI founder Selima Ahmad with CIPE Senior Program Officer Marc Schleifer (left) and Regional Director Andrew Wilson (right).
Selima Ahmad, founder of long-time CIPE partner the Bangladesh Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BWCCI), traveled to Washington DC this week to be honored with the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Award, established by the International Republican Institute’s Women’s Democracy Network. This award honors those who have made contributions to the advancement of women through politics and civil society around the world.
Ahmad and BWCCI certainly fit that bill, having built an organization in less than ten years from two dozen members to more than 3,000, providing training to over 1,500 women entrepreneurs to improve their business skills, and taken numerous women business owners on trade expositions to allow them to establish trade links with potential partners.
Most importantly, BWCCI has kept the focus on policy advocacy to improve the business environment for its members, to allow them to flourish and to move from microenterprises to the small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) level. In particular, BWCCI has worked on the issue of access to finance for women-owned business, as well as access to marketplaces around Bangladesh.
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.
“Studies show that investing in women is a high yield investment as gender equality in access to education, healthcare, political participation, and economic participation is key to a country’s competitiveness and prosperity. It is a fact that women-run small and medium-sized enterprises (SME’s) drive economic growth and create jobs. This is true in my country and it is true around the world.” – Melanne S Verveer and Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia.
According to the World Bank, South Asia has the largest number of economically deprived and undernourished people in the world. Despite this it also has the world’s largest working age population and 25% of world’s middle-class consumers. If stabilized, the benefits of economic growth in the region would not only help alleviate policy, but would also extend to developed countries by supplying quality goods and services. On top of everything, peace in this region will also be ensured.
One of the ways to improve the economic conditions of South Asian countries is engaging women in economic development through entrepreneurial activities. To help support women interested in entrepreneurship, the U.S. State Department organized a two-day South Asia Women’s Entrepreneurship Symposium in Dhaka on 9-10 December. One hundred and twenty women entrepreneurs from eleven countries in the region, including Central Asia, participated in the event, which focused on creating cross-border linkages between women entrepreneurs and leaders in South Asia. During the symposium, participants in breakout sessions discussed the challenges and opportunities for women entrepreneurs in technology, governance, trade, and entrepreneurship.