Women Mean Business: Game Changers in South Asia


Article at a glance:

  • Networking and mentorship plays an important role in the creation of an entrepreneurial ecosystem for women and for inclusive economic growth.
  • Mentorship helps to create a safe space to share challenges and disappointments as well as achievements and joys in pushing for policy reform.
  • Scaling up women-owned businesses is an important part of ensuring women’s participation in the economy.


In the consolidating and emerging democracies of South Asia, the majority of women are blocked from full economic and civil participation by a range of formal and informal obstacles, including laws and regulations, and cultural and societal norms. As a result, democracy is not delivering for roughly half of the population in the region, with indicators for women’s health, welfare, literacy, education, income, and wealth among the lowest in the world. For democracies to thrive, these barriers must be steadily reduced – and ultimately eliminated – to allow all citizens to contribute to, and benefit from, political and economic development in the region.

While there is no shortage of aid programs for women in the region, CIPE recognized that limited attention was being paid to reforming the broader political and economic institutions and systems that are skewed against women, and little being done to improve the business environment so that women-owned businesses could thrive. The environment for women across the region has historically made it difficult for them to obtain finance, own or use property as collateral, or access markets. To address this, CIPE launched a multi-year program to strengthen women’s chambers of commerce and business associations, building an informal network of such organizations from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh.

Since 2012, CIPE has brought the network together nearly ten times to exchange information and best practices, to establish mentorship links between weaker and stronger organizations, and to build relationships between women in business, as well as between entire organizations, across the region. CIPE has provided capacity building workshops on governance, financial and staff management, communications, and membership development. Since the start of this project, the women in the network have grown in confidence and in strength, and their organizations have benefited from increased capacity.

CIPE’s approach to institutional change is to support the work of local chambers of commerce and business associations, to encourage their engagement with policymakers through advocacy, and to shift public opinion in favor of reform. For chambers and associations to succeed in their advocacy role, they need to be well governed, effectively managed, financially secure, have an active membership, and a strong communications strategy. That, in turn requires an investment in building the capacity of those organizations, as well as an investment in the women who run them.

Through this network of 31 inspiring and empowered women, CIPE has demonstrated that an important element in achieving a level economic playing field for women is to advocate reforming the legal and institutional barriers that hinder women’s participation. Unified voices of women entrepreneurs have made their way into key policy debates in their countries, as women work to reform the very systems that have inhibited them over the years. Today, the South Asia Regional Women’s Network is integral to CIPE’s work with women in the region.

Building a Network of Women’s Business Associations

CIPE has taken a dynamic approach working with women’s business associations to empower women who may be marginalized by prevailing norms and lack opportunities needed to grow and expand businesses. CIPE’s effort to push for an ecosystem where women entrepreneurs can thrive has been unique in its focus on networking and mentorship among women’s business organizations. Though a few women’s business organizations in the region are well established, most are fairly new and function at a basic level. This ongoing program, which reaches across countries, supports nascent chambers to become effective advocates for women entrepreneurs and businesses, and establishes links with more mature organizations to share best practices and lessons learned.

In less than four years, the program has seen great progress. At the regular workshops that CIPE conducts in the region, participating women entrepreneurs have become increasingly proactive, with their chambers and associations engaging in economic policy advocacy initiatives, and, in a number of cases, successfully advancing concrete policy reform.

The successes of CIPE’s South Asia Women’s Regional Network tell the story of how:

  • Private sector and entrepreneurship spark empowerment for women and lead to improved economic and political participation;
  • Women coming together to advocate policy reform can dismantle marketplace barriers;
  • Policy wins create conditions for women-owned businesses to grow and thrive;
  • Women can amplify their success through motivation and encouragement from peers.

Inclusive Economic Growth and Political Participation

When CIPE began to work with this group of women business associations, the program was designed as an ongoing series of capacity building training and networking sessions. The sessions focused primarily on issues such as board governance, strategic planning, staff, and financial management, communications, membership development, and services for members. Country to country, from Pakistan to Sri Lanka, the approach and support CIPE has provided these organizations has been locally driven. The context and capacity of each of these associations is varied. Each organization has a unique history and dynamic, from newer to more established ones. CIPE met these organizations, and the women behind them, responding to each one’s unique circumstances and filling needs as they arose.

Today, the network has 12 business associations and 14 key women association leaders actively involved. These women, which include a mix of both board members and senior managers, represent organizations with membership figures ranging from 100 direct members in Nepal to nearly 4,000 members in Bangladesh.

These entrepreneurs, and the business associations they lead, have grown as they have learned from one another, improved their ability for effective policy advocacy, and advised each other on how to overcome common challenges. In finding solutions with the help of the network community, their organizations have become stronger and now speak with a unified voice. Network participants have also been able to improve member services, tailoring their training sessions for members to help them start and grow businesses, provide jobs, and bring women in from the informal economy.

When a woman becomes an entrepreneur and becomes more financially independent, she inherently takes on a greater decision-making role not only in the family, but in society as well. As women entrepreneurs formalize – register their businesses, obtain trade licenses, pay taxes – and operate within the mainstream of the country’s economy, they not only directly contribute to the economy but also have a greater stake in their community and their country. By becoming fuller economic and political stakeholders in their country, women are able to demand accountability from their government.

Across the region, women are increasingly staking their claim within the larger business community. By bridging the successes of the organizations within CIPE’s network and creating links between them, the possibilities of private sector enterprise and entrepreneurship have become clearer to women across the region.

The Role of Mentorship

In the initial stages of the program, understanding the complexities of policy advocacy among network members was a particularly acute challenge, especially for the organizations with no prior experience in advocacy. As it became clear how much hard work and time advocacy demands – from identifying issues of concern to members to developing concrete policy recommendations – the network became a safe space where women could openly share their challenges and disappointments as well as their achievements, joy, and hard-won triumphs.

CIPE prioritized building mentor-mentee relationships, pairing the well-established associations with the more nascent ones or those that might have been established long ago but had yet to engage in advocacy. Women in the network have said that the mentorship relationship is an empowering experience that has helped develop both their personal and professional lives. One key mentor in particular, Selima Ahmad, the founder of the Bangladesh Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BWCCI), has instilled a passion for advocacy among all of the network’s members. As her mentee, Shamama Arbab of the Peshawar Women's Chamber in Pakistan, said, Selima “took us under her wings.” Selima is an accomplished business leader, a dedicated supporter of women entrepreneurs in Bangladesh and beyond, and the winner of the 2014 Oslo Business for Peace Award. She is also a mentor of high esteem. A mentor who has expanded the mentality of what mentorship means. Shamama Arbab went on to tell CIPE that with the support of the network, “this is a quantum leap… with this model, I have actually seen ‘best practices’ bring difference.”

The sheer number of challenges these entrepreneurial women face is staggering. The role that the women of the South Asia Regional Women’s Network have played has been essential to their success, both individually and at the organizational level. Ahmad added, remarking on the role of mentorship in the network: “You know your destination, but you don’t know the route… the mentorship network addresses this.” Not only did they come together to find solutions to common hurdles, but they also provided the motivation and mutual encouragement to keep going – and to remind each other that their hard work has the potential to change the lives of women today and for future generations.

Increasing Economic Prosperity for Women through Policy Advocacy

As women’s organizations in South Asia have developed, they have taken the huge step of advocating policy change at both the regional and national level, to meet the needs of their members and improve the entrepreneurship ecosystem for women. First in Bangladesh and India, women’s chambers and associations understood the power of collective action and advocacy. Witnessing just how much change was possible through these organizations, women in Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan have also begun advocating policy reforms to increase access to economic prosperity not just for women but for all entrepreneurs and small business owners.

Within a few years, women’s business organizations across the region have begun to tackle a range of policy issues – from increasing access to credit, to improving access to markets, to ensuring women have a seat on corporate boards – adding value to their organizations. Within the CIPE network, there have been a number of advocacy successes, including:

  • In Pakistan, the South Punjab and Peshawar Women’s Chambers of Commerce formed a coalition that successfully advocated the increase of the commercial loan repayment period for artisans from 180 to 360 days. South Punjab and Peshawar are home to large artisan communities made up mainly of women working on embroidery and handcrafted textiles. The extended credit repayment period has helped them to fulfill orders and allowed them to plan purchases and sales further in advance, leading to increased overall sales.
  • In Sri Lanka, the Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce (WCIC) advocated the passage of a gender-sensitive policy for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Sri Lanka’s government welcomed WCIC’s recommendations, and the new gender-sensitive SME policy was passed. Shortly thereafter, the new government asked WCIC representatives to sit on the SME Committee of the Ministry of Industry to help shape economic policy, giving yet another platform for women’s voices to be heard in the policy sphere.
  • In Nepal, the Federation of Women Entrepreneurs’ Associations of Nepal (FWEAN) worked to help government ministries interested in moving forward a bill designed to help women-owned SMEs that had been stalled for years. FWEAN held a number of advocacy events to publicize the importance of the issue. The bill is still under consideration in the Parliament but FWEAN is now seen as a credible representative of women in business that is able to get things done. As a result, the organization’s membership continues to grow.

To help these organizations implement their programs, given that many of them were working on advocacy campaigns for the first time, CIPE provided small grants for advocacy initiatives and regular feedback on progress, as well as mentorship from some of the more experienced leaders in the network on issues ranging from accessing credit to overcoming the challenges created by gender paradigms.

The countries where the advocacy initiatives took place – Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Nepal – are difficult environments for policy reform. As these organizations were implementing their small grants, each country faced political turbulence that may have shaken the resolve of less dedicated change makers. However, despite the political, social, cultural, economic and security challenges, CIPE’s partners have shown that with the right mentors, capabilities, and know-how, women in South Asia can effect positive change at the policy level, working with a range of stakeholders to improve the lives of women entrepreneurs.

These organizations are continuing to advocate policies that lower the barriers that women disproportionately face not only in South Asia, but across the world. These organizations have demonstrated that advocacy efforts can yield remarkable results in the short-term and in the long-term level the playing field for women in business.

Scaling Up Progress

An integral piece of amplifying the successes of these organizations, and of women’s empowerment generally, hinges on scaling up women-owned businesses. The success of these businesses, and the SME sector as a whole, is pivotal not only for women but for the economy as a whole in order to fill the growing need to create jobs across the region. South Asia is expected to contribute nearly 40 percent of the growth in the world’s working-age population over the next several decades. While the region has experienced strong economic growth over the last 30 years and the region is the fastest-growing region in the world , many – mainly women and young people – are under-employed or shut out from the workplace entirely. Increasingly, the question of how to ensure women’s participation in the workforce remains crucial. One solution is to scale up women-owned businesses. To play that role, these businesses need access to capital at a level that will allow them to grow, employ more labor, and increase their contribution to the economy.

While the microcredit movement in South Asia has put capital valued at up to 11.7 billion USD into the hands of the smallest businesses, the capital that microcredit has provided has not been enough to move women-owned businesses to the next stage of development. As businesses begin to grow, more significant loans that can allow sole proprietorships and microenterprises to become SMEs are needed. Further still, access to capital itself is only half the battle. That is why, across the region, women business associations are working to provide support, training, management skills, and networking in addition to pushing for policy reform that opens access to credit for women.

In Bangladesh, for example, BWCCI has trained 5,000 women entrepreneurs in 64 districts. Entrepreneurs that just a short time ago only sold a few rugs per month are now selling 100 per month. Membership has grown from 300 to over 2,500. BWCCI’s advocacy initiatives, most notably the Woman’s National Business Agenda which worked to improve access to credit for women, has shown results. According to the Central Bank, $93 million in SME loans has been provided to almost 10,000 women, helping create tens of thousands of new jobs. Under a government refinancing scheme for SMEs, the Central Bank instructed all commercial banks and non-bank financial institutions to disburse to women entrepreneurs at least three percent of targeted lending (representing 15 percent of SME refinancing loans). As Selima Ahmad, a strong mentor of the network, recently discussed at a conference on gender-equitable economic and democratic development in Delhi, “These women are now generating employment from two to three employees up to 10 to 200 or more.”

Ahmad is one of the networks strongest mentors. Her role in the network has inspired similar changes in Sri Lanka and Nepal. That change begins by empowering each other as well as members of the organizations themselves. In Nepal, FWEAN has brought its members together to share information and best practices on policies that affect their businesses, establishing space for members to support each other. In January, Mahalaxmi Shrestha, FWEAN executive member and a honey entrepreneur, spoke on the standardization of agro-based products and the role these policies have for business in the sector. By reaching across mentor-mentee lines and down to the members themselves, these organizations are able to strengthen and scale up their work. In Sri Lanka, this work has resulted in the inauguration of the Federation of Women Entrepreneurs of Sri Lanka (FWEASL). CIPE’s original partner, the Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce, has been named co-chair to the federation, showing the notable growth and expansion of the model across the region in both name and in practice.

Lessons Learned and the Way Forward

Shifting cultural norms is never an easy task. The work that goes into improving both the social and business environment for women will take years, if not generations. The inspiring women in business included in CIPE’s South Asia Women’s Regional Network have come together since 2012 to share their personal experiences in growing their businesses, launching and running their organizations, and working to foster inclusive economic growth and women’s political and economic empowerment. In doing so, they have begun to re-shape not only their businesses and their own lives, but the lives of other women in their countries through policy reform.

With CIPE’s support, a wide range of women stakeholders in South Asia have begun to envision a role for themselves in business and, more broadly, in the policymaking process of economic and democratic reform. Across the region, women who have taken part in or benefited from CIPE’s programs increasingly come together to demand that the governments not only respond to the needs of women entrepreneurs but fully recognize that their contribution is untapped potential that benefits everyone.

Over the years, CIPE has learned key lessons on how to empower women, including:

  • Regional networks can provide crucial opportunities for women entrepreneurs to grow their businesses, advocate policy change, and build a political culture that is welcoming of women’s participation.
  • Training-of-trainers workshops ensure that key participants of the network are equipped to train their board members, staff, and affiliate organizations on capacity-building and policy advocacy in order to broaden the delivery and reach of capacity strengthening and advocacy knowledge.
  • Mentorship requires strong commitment from both parties, and takes a lot of effort. The end results, however, are more than worth it. The lessons, connections, and opportunities that mentors provide are invaluable. It has been an integral part of the CIPE program in South Asia.

As long as women in the region continue to face a wide array of barriers, CIPE will remain focused on empowering women in business and supporting their drive to change institutions from the inside out. The program has not only generated successes for these women in South Asia, but has inspired women around the world through CIPE’s international network of women partners. Inspired and scaling up, these game changing women are coming together for each other and to effect systemic change.

Rachel Grossman is an Program Coordinator for Eurasia and South Asia at the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) in Washington, DC.

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