“Empowered Businesswomen.” “Businesswomen Influence the Destinies of Other Women.” These two headlines ran in the March 7, 2015 editions of Nicaragua’s two leading newspapers, La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario.
It is not unusual for Nicaraguan media to publish articles related to women’s empowerment on International Women’s Day. Women are prominent in the Nicaraguan political sphere, thanks in part to gender quotas encompassed in the Gender Equality Law and the revised Electoral Law. Nicaragua now ranks 11th in the world in the proportion of women in parliament, 40 percent – far above most other Latin American countries (and the United States, with 18 percent). International Women’s Day provides an opportunity to highlight these advances.
What’s unusual in the case of the two articles linked above is the inclusion of one word: “Businesswomen.” Here is why.
Unfortunately the trend towards greater participation of women in the political sphere has been slow to spread to private sector organizations, which are key actors in advocating for policies that improve the business climate. A 2014 review conducted by the Network of Nicaraguan Businesswomen (REN) of the 19 business organizations that form the umbrella private sector association the Superior Council for Private Enterprise (COSEP) found that an average of 16 percent of board members are women. This is the same figure found by a similar study by the International Labor Organization in 2009.
Private sector organizations rarely incentivize women’s participation or provide equal access to information that can lead them to access leadership positions. As a result, there are very few private sector leaders promoting the specific interests and needs of women entrepreneurs in a substantial way.
On top of that, organizations of women entrepreneurs have historically operated based on incipient alliances and limited coordination with one another, resulting in disperse efforts to advocate for public policies that can improve the business environment for women entrepreneurs.
If this is the reality, are La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario‘s articles simply fluff pieces scheduled to coincide with International Women’s Day?
The answer is no. In 2014, the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) began working with REN to improve the capacity of women entrepreneurs and businesswomen organizations to advocate for a better business environment and to increase the knowledge and awareness of businesswomen, government officials, private sector associations, donors, and the public in general about the specific obstacles and challenges women entrepreneurs face.
REN’s highly participatory Nicaraguan Businesswomen Agenda process included meetings with women entrepreneurs in eight Nicaraguan cities including Chinandega, Matagalpa, Masaya, Granada, Estelí, Mosonte, León, and Managua to discuss obstacles to women’s participation in Nicaragua’s business sector.
These discussions boiled down to four priority areas for the Agenda: access to credit, associability and leadership, capacity building needs, and legal framework. REN set up a working group for each priority area with the participation of businesswomen, think tanks, lending institutions, universities, and government officials. These working groups then identified concrete measures to overcome the specific problems in each priority area.
To date more than 200 women, 30 civil society organizations and private companies, and five universities have actively participated in the development of the National Businesswomen’s Agenda. OK, but what does this have to do with the headlines in La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario?
The headlines give nod to the draft agenda that was presented during REN’s International Women’s Day forum “Strengthening the Voice of Women Entrepreneurs with a Growth Agenda” on March 6. U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua Phyllis Powers, Nicaraguan Minister of Industry and Commerce Orlando Solórzano, President of REN Lucy Valenti, leaders from other women’s organizations, and roughly 450 others participated in the event to discuss the National Businesswomen’s Agenda and necessary steps to improve women’s economic and political participation in Nicaragua.
This wasn’t REN’s first International Women’s Day forum, but it was the first to present concrete action items for improving women’s economic empowerment in Nicaragua. Valenti stated at the event, “Economic empowerment not only means that women have jobs, properties, and businesses, but also means having the actual control of these resources and the ability to influence our own destiny.”
CIPE strives to empower the private sector to participate in the democratic process and strengthen the freedom of association. In Nicaragua, the national business agenda process with women entrepreneurs at the forefront is facilitating a degree of cooperation rarely seen amongst civil society organizations.
The visibility of messages like “Empowered Businesswomen” and “Businesswomen Influence the Destinies of Other Women” are a step in the right direction. Giving women entrepreneurs a seat at the “advocacy” table can yield long-term benefits for women’s empowerment by building a political and economic environment that benefits society as a whole, not just one half of it.
Creating an inclusive agenda was the first step. Now REN and its allies, the Association of Producers and Exporters of Nicaragua (APEN), Vital Voices Nicaragua, COSEP’s Gender Commission, the Nicaraguan Development Institute (INDE), and the Permanent Congress of Nicaraguan Women Entrepreneurs (CPMEN) are embarking on defining specific recommendations for legal reforms, garnering more cooperation from government and additional private sector actors, and engendering broad public support through social and traditional media.
Plan to start seeing the word “Businesswomen” a lot more in the Nicaraguan press, and not just on International Women’s Day.
Brent Ruth is a Program Officer for Latin America & the Caribbean at CIPE.