Women’s economic empowerment
“The women I work with face many problems – poverty, little education, inadequate life skills – but by the time they graduate I find them strong and enabled. When they start to earn money they improve their position in the family and in society,” says Hand in Hand vocational trainer Palwasha Rafiqzada. Palwasha is from Afghanistan but her words ring just as true in Rwanda, Kenya, India or Cambodia. Although we work with grassroots entrepreneurs of both sexes, most of our members are women. Why? Research shows that women entrepreneurs spend far more than men on their family’s food, housing, health and education.
By the numbers
Our approach to women’s empowerment varies according to the cultural norms of each country. In Afghanistan, we learned to establish exclusively male Self-Help Groups as a way to build trust and, ultimately, reach members’ wives and daughters. Consequently, our female participation rate in the country is 50 percent – significantly higher than both the national female labour participation rate of 16 percent and the target rate of 35 percent set by the Afghan government for aid programmes. Women seeking work in India face fewer cultural barriers, but the need among female micro-entrepreneurs is arguably just as great. According to the International Labour Organization the country ranks 120 out of 131 in women’s labor force participation. Rurally, barely one in three women work – 19.5 million fewer than just five years ago. Rwanda represents another extreme. Forty-three percent of registered business owners in the country are women, along with an astonishing 64 percent of MPs – more by far than anywhere else in the world. But for all the progress Rwanda has made on women’s equality, the country as a whole has a long way to go. The majority of Rwandans are still engaged in subsistence farming, necessitating far-reaching sector-wide improvements, while 28 percent are considered ‘food-insecure’ by the World Food Programme.
For all the differences among Hand in Hand operating countries, the women we support in each agree on one thing: the value of an improved income and independent decision-making. In a poll of Afghan Self-Help Group members, women almost unanimously reported experiencing a newfound sense of freedom.
“My life has totally changed,” said Najia, (left) who started her own canned food business in northern Afghanistan.
“I’m no longer dependent on my husband’s income and I can easily purchase clothes and school materials and take my children to the doctor. I’m even saving for emergencies – and to expand my enterprise.”
More than 3,000 miles away in Kenya, mat manufacturer Virginia Nzokia of the Sisters of Faith group said virtually the same thing: “I used to go around other people’s homesteads to ask them to give me a job. Now I am somebody in the community. I feel good because we can pay my children’s school fees regularly.”