Participants at a recent capacity building workshop for women’s chambers in South Asia.
At CIPE, we take a systemic and institutional approach to supporting entrepreneurship. Systemic in that unlike other organizations, rather than providing training or microloans to individual entrepreneurs, we seek to understand the policy barriers that often make it difficult to register firms, access credit, or conduct business. Institutional in that we support the efforts of civil society organizations – chambers of commerce and business associations – that seek to engage and advocate with policymakers to eliminate those barriers.
In the case of promoting women entrepreneurs, CIPE has focused in a wide range of countries on building the capacity and strengthening the governance of women’s chambers and association, thus making them more effective participants in that advocacy process.
Recently, a group of CIPE staffers took part in an informal email discussion that illuminates certain aspects of our approach to working with these organizations, which we wanted to share with readers of this blog. The conversation began when Julie Mancuso, Program Officer for Africa, wrote to several of her colleagues: “I am curious as to best models for women’s chambers and whether separate is usually better. Should women be engaged ideally through a strong local chamber, rather than starting their own, organized primarily around gender? Is this an area of debate or is there an agreed-upon model one way or the other?” Her specific question concerned her work with a coalition of women’s business associations that are weighing the relative merits of creating their own chamber or operating under the umbrella of the national chamber.
Recently there has been a lot of discussion surrounding the gender gap, especially when it comes to economic participation. For everyone who is interested in human rights and understands that involving women in all aspects of government and business only improves dialogue and strengthens democracy, while at the same time rapidly improving the living standards of these women and their families, this fact is frustrating.
No one can deny that women are industrious, innovative, and enterprising, and that given the opportunity and resources, women can be very successful in business and in democratic and economic reform processes. We’ve moved beyond the debate of whether women “can” to the debate of “If they can, why aren’t they? What’s preventing them?”
Saadia Zahidi, Senior Director, Head of the World Economic Forum’s Women Leader and Gender Parity Programme, visits the New York Stock Exchange with partner companies on International Women’s Day 2012. (Photo: WEF)
Women represent more than half of the world’s population and yet no single country has achieved full gender parity. A country’s global competitiveness depends on utilizing the human capital of its entire workforce, including the untapped skills and knowledge of women. Since 2006, the World Economic Forum has published its annual Global Gender Gap Report as a means of assessing and quantifying the state of gender equality in the world. The report focuses on four main factors that make-up individual country’s scores: “economic participation and opportunity, education attainment, health and survival and political empowerment.”
Low primary and secondary enrollment for girls threatens Pakistan’s economic future. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The World Economic Forum has once again put Pakistan at the bottom of its index ranking “gender gaps” in economics, politics, education, and health. Last year, Pakistan ranked 132 out of 134 countries, down from 127 the year before. This year there is no change in the overall ranking, however the report suggests that the state of gender-based biases in Pakistan remains abominable — and worse, stagnant.
While women make up over 51 of the population in Pakistan, only 3 percent of women participate actively in the economy. Thanks to CIPE efforts in 2006, Pakistani women now have the right to form business associations, and as a result there are eight registered women business associations in the country. Additionally, every chamber in Pakistan now has to elect two women members to its board. But gender equality is still a major issue in the country. The recent Gender Gap Report also mentions that while the gap between men and women has narrowed slightly in most countries during the past year, Pakistan still ranks the lowest in Asia and the Pacific region.
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.