Reviving an economic base is one of the first priorities in post-conflict reconstruction. When large companies have suffered too great loses to resume operations quickly, and while foreign investors may still be wary of the security situation, local small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are often the first signs economic rebirth. Increasingly, women are joining men in creating their own SME ventures, contributing both to supporting their own households and to their countries’ recovery. But much remains to be done to empower those women: analysis of emergency and post-conflict spending patterns done by the UN Development Fund for Women shows that just 2 percent of post-conflict budgets target women’s empowerment or gender equality.
The presence of women entrepreneurs in post-conflict societies matters for several important reasons:
1) Women are often the ones left behind to support their families after their husbands and brothers went off to war and their ability to provide that support is crucial for survival of the entire communities.
2) Women are typically among the most trusted members of society following a conflict given their role of bystander or victim rather than perpetrator, and – as new economic leaders – they can foster reconciliation.
3) Countries struggling to alleviate post-conflict poverty need to harness all human capital available to succeed, making entrepreneurship a means for overcoming traditional social barriers to women’s economic participation.
Aspiring entrepreneurs face a host of challenges in any post-conflict country, and those challenges are particularly steep for women who often lack proper education, resources, and social support to start and operate a business. The lack of equipment, materials, and working capital as well as unavailability of credit for many women entrepreneurs are among key hurdles. Damaged or non-existent infrastructure in post-conflict areas is also a big impediment for all entrepreneurs.
Yet, the aftermath of conflict can also create new opportunities for societies to revisit their entrenched concepts of gender roles and for women to realize entrepreneurial ventures that perhaps were not feasible in the past. What is more, when women-owned businesses move beyond micro-enterprises toward small and medium firms, they not only benefit the female owner but also create employment and opportunities for others – both women and men. No post-conflict country struggling with recovery can ignore that enormous economic potential of half (or more) of their populations.
One key element of opening up such opportunities to women entrepreneurs – and in fact all entrepreneurs – is institutional reform. While much of international post-conflict aid focuses on rebuilding physical infrastructure or helping individual entrepreneurs through loans and training, rebuilding (or creating from scratch as the case may be) the country’s institutional infrastructure is equally important. Democratic governance, secure property rights, contract enforcement, working judiciary – those are all indispensable parts of building a strong business environment. Governments in post-conflict countries and international donors should take to heart reforms that help improve this environment and the best way to do so is through listening to the needs and concerns of the local business community. Taking the private sector’s views into account in post-conflict reconstruction is essential to building a framework of good governance and sound economic policies that are the prerequisites of sustainable peace.
Political uncertainty, regional unrest, and the dependence upon international donors for financial and human capital support make post-conflict countries among the world’s most difficult places to do business. In those challenging environments, women are a crucial part of continuing along the path of economic progress. Clearly, they need capital, but they also need training and capacity building. They need positive role models and knowledge sharing among successful entrepreneurs. See this CIPE Feature Service article for several such examples in Rwanda and Afghanistan, where women entrepreneurs have made significant inroads into the post-conflict business environment. From a construction business in Kabul to basket exporting in Kigali, women in both countries are using business to improve their own situation and build better future for their nations.