Connect to empower – Maghrebi women in the private sector

Moroccan designer Fadilah Berrada
Models wear creations by Moroccan designer Fadilah Berrada (r) during the show

From February 24-25, 2010, the Forum on Mediterranean Women took place in the Tunisian capital of Tunis, with the theme, “Generate New Opportunities for Mediterranean Women.” Participants discussed how to strengthen women’s entrepreneurship in Mediterranean counties and introducing new business opportunities for women. Maghrebi women representing different sectors were in attendance, giving them also the chance individually to network and discuss ways to promote entrepreneurship — a term that did not exist in Arabic until recently. Such gatherings are crucial for continuing to build on what Maghrebi women have laid down as a foundation for women’s empowerment in the region.

The forum was organized by the Mediterranean Union of the Confederations of Enterprises, in cooperation with the Invest in the Med Program, the National Chamber of Women Heads of Enterprises and the German Cooperation Agency.

Maghrebi women have come a long way in terms of pushing for political, social and economic reform, integrating their participation in decision-making, creating enterprises, and making investments. However, they still have a long way to go in terms of maximizing their contributions to the private sector and using entrepreneurship as a means to overcome cultural and social barriers among women.

Entrepreneurial women in the Maghreb still represent a small proportion of the total population, and are divided over cultural, socioeconomic, and even linguistic lines. Whether it is an illiterate woman running a small home-based sewing business or a female fashion designer who graduated from France’s L’École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts (National Advanced School of Fine Arts), Maghrebi women are united despite such divisions by the goal to contribute to their own households and their country, and to use business opportunities to improve their own situation and build a better future for the region.

They are also united by their interest in exploring their options in the private sector, which is often viewed as more rewarding than the public sector despite fear of job insecurity. The new generation of Maghrebi women has started to realize that the public sector cannot absorb growing populations and meet their professional and financial needs. In the Maghreb, more and more women are joining the private sector, particularly in the textile, manufacturing, health, communications, and agricultural sectors. However, the number of women in self-employment in the formal sector and businesses headed by women entrepreneurs is still small. Lack of or limited practical education and training, underdeveloped business skills and opportunities, and poor access to resources and social support have prevented women in the Maghreb from contributing to the private sector and operating businesses.

Women in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, as in many other countries, also must face the challenge of making the transition to higher productivity employment and higher wages without simply replacing male workers and more socioeconomically privileged female workers of the existing workforce.

Despite promising trends in the Maghreb in recent years, there is more to be done to encourage Maghrebi women to contribute to the private sector and become business entrepreneurs. Economic development and sustainability are contingent upon empowering women by engaging them more in economic and political processes, building their capacity, and guaranteeing their access to resources and services through legal and institutional reform.

International organizations can play a role in connecting female role models with the underprivileged ones through training, capacity building and knowledge sharing despite their differences, through venues such as the Forum on Mediterranean Women. Such gatherings and other work contribute to an environment in which local women from different backgrounds connect and learn from each other’s experiences and mistakes, while developing and maintaining relationships with mentors in the business community. Establishing these connections is the next step in empowering  Maghrebi women and strengthening their contributions to the local, regional, and global economy.