Earlier this week, in the midst of Donald Trump’s Middle East trip, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates announced that they would pledge $100 million to the Women’s Entrepreneurship Fund. The newly-formed fund is part of a women’s empowerment initiative by the World Bank. However, while advocates say entrepreneurship programs are a crucial way for women to gain freedom, some human rights groups are skeptical of the motivations of these nations — especially since advancing women’s rights in their own countries doesn’t seem too high on their lists of priorities.
The announcement of the $100 million donation came during the Trump family’s visit to Saudi Arabia as part of a 9-day day tour of the Middle East. The idea for the fund was reportedly the “brainchild” of Ivanka Trump, according to NPR, along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, although Trump will not be involved in its operation. The fund will reportedly help women in the Middle East by providing female business owners with access to entrepreneurial building blocks, like investments and technical assistance.
“We thought it was a fantastic idea,” World Bank President Jim Young Kim said at the ceremony. “But we had no idea how quickly this would build. This is really a stunning achievement. I’ve never seen anything come together so quickly, and I really have to say that Ivanka’s leadership has been tremendous.”
— Ivanka Trump (@IvankaTrump) May 21, 2017
Entrepenuership programs play an integral role in the advancement of women’s rights, says Julie Johnson, communications manager for the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE). For 35 years, CIPE has helped to implement these types of programs in developing nations around the world, from rewriting laws to allow for the creation of women’s business groups, to lobbying for women’s financial rights in Palestine, to setting up a special women’s desk at a bank in Bangladesh.
“We’ve seen a lot of women entrepreneurs we work with tell us that becoming successful at business helps them have more say in society and policy… It’s a gateway to having greater influence in other areas of society as well.”
“The kinds of programs we’ve found are really helpful are working with women’s chambers of commerce to set up networks, and help women to advocate for policy changes that make it possible for them to operate on a level playing field with men and allow them to access the finance they need and the support they need to be successful,” Johnson tells Bustle.
But going beyond being able to run successful businesses and find some economic independence, Johnson says the skills women learn from these programs help them to advocate for their needs in other areas of their lives, and gives them a greater voice in their communities.
“We’ve seen a lot of women entrepreneurs we work with tell us that becoming successful at business helps them have more say in society and policy,” Johnson says. “It’s a gateway to having greater influence in other areas of society as well.”
However, some human rights groups don’t see the recent Saudi Arabia and UAE donation as an earnest attempt at women’s empowerment, especially looking at the track records of the countries who most recently pledged money.
Rothna Begum, the women’s rights researcher for the Middle East and North Africa region for Human Rights Watch, tells Bustle in an email that both Saudi Arabia and the UAE place extreme restrictions on women’s everyday lives, especially with what is called the “male guardianship system.”
“Under the male guardianship system, women cannot travel abroad, apply for a passport, undertake higher education, or marry without the permission of a male guardian—which can be their father, brother, husband, or even son,” Begum writes. “They regularly face difficulty conducting a range of transactions — from renting an apartment to filing legal claims — without a male relative’s consent or presence.”
“Throwing money at a women’s fund, does not absolve them of the little steps they have taken to improve women’s rights at home.”
According to Begum, under this system, women are bound from participating in many essential parts of life without the permission of her male guardian. In Saudi Arabia, even in instances where there are no explicit laws requiring guardian permission, such as for women to work or receive medical procedures, there is also no law that forbids employers or hospitals from requesting guardian permission. In the UAE, Begum says, women may work but if a woman takes a job without her husband’s consent, she can be deemed “disobedient,” which is a violation of law.
Thus, from Begum’s perspective, why would these countries donate such a large sum to a fund aimed at empowering women? She calls it a “distraction.”
“Development agencies in general see human rights, including women’s human rights, as instrumental to development rather than as an imperative on their own.”
“Throwing money at a women’s fund, does not absolve them of the little steps they have taken to improve women’s rights at home,” Begum writes. “Women entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia for instance, are not necessarily lacking in money, but rather severely restricted through a myriad of rules and practices that make up the notorious male guardianship system, and the imposition of sex segregation across public spaces.”
Then, there’s the secondary question: why would the World Bank accept money for a women’s empowerment project from countries whose actions do not align with the mission it is funding?
— World Bank (@WorldBank) May 22, 2017
Marsha Freeman, Senior Fellow and Director of the International Women’s Rights Action Watch, tells Bustle that development agencies like the World Bank are often only concerned with human rights in the context of economic development, not as a cause on their own.
“[The World Bank] is a government-funded development agency, with a stake in being ‘nonpolitical,’ and historically human rights is considered ‘political,'” Freeman writes in an email. “Development agencies in general see human rights, including women’s human rights, as instrumental to development rather than as an imperative on their own.”
On the surface, $100 million for potentially life-changing initiatives seems like a win for Middle Eastern women. However, it all depends on whether Saudi Arabia and UAE make changes in their own country; it may not be quite so beneficial for women if they actually put their money where their mouth is.
Alexandra Spychalsky is a writer based in California.