Beating the odds: empowering women in marginalised communities

19 Mar 2019

Beating the odds: empowering women in marginalised communities

Inspiring entrepreneurs are leading by example to empower women in marginalised and impoverished communities.

Worldwide, women are gaining ground in education, in the workforce and in government. But there are still many women and girls—especially in marginalised indigenous and ethnic minority communities and in less developed countries - who face an uphill battle.

Despite the challenges, women in these communities are empowering themselves, seizing opportunities. They are fighting back against entrenched, systemic inequality.

Against all odds

Women in ethnic minority groups are generally more disadvantaged than the men in their communities when it comes to opportunities for education, employment and community leadership roles. These inequalities are often made worse by a lack of access to government assistance.

In addition to the challenges related to poverty and disenfranchisement, marginalised groups have less access to capital. This makes it difficult to build wealth and start businesses.

Native Americans living on reservations in the US, for example, don’t own their land, so they can’t build equity. (Reservation land is held ‘in trust’ by the federal government.)

The Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative estimates that 70% of women-owned SMEs in developing countries can’t get the capital they need, resulting in a credit deficit of nearly $1.5 trillion.

Starting or sustaining a business without access to capital is nearly impossible.

Despite these seemingly insurmountable obstacles, inspiring female entrepreneurs and change-makers in marginalised communities are making inroads. They’re inspiring the younger generation and helping to lift their communities out of poverty in the process.

Rising up

One way that women in marginalised communities are fighting back against inequality and disadvantage is by challenging the status quo by starting socially conscious businesses that can help their communities.

Teara Fraser, a pilot and member of the Métis Nation of Northwest Territories, is the first Indigenous woman in Canada to own an airline, Iskwew Air (the Cree word for woman).

Fraser always dreamt of flying, and with this venture, she aims to connect communities and support tourism to remote, indigenous lands.

Iskwew's first plane was blessed by elders from the Musqueam nation and the airline will begin services on International Women's Day 2019.

Entrepreneurs in action

A notable female entrepreneur paving the way for Kenyan women is Njeri Rionge. After launching a string of successful small businesses, she is now one of the leading investors in the IT sector in Africa. She is also the co-founder of East Africa’s first, mass market internet service provider. Passing on the knowledge and skills she has acquired to young entrepreneurs is one of her top priorities.

In Bangladesh, Monowara Ali Khan is a social entrepreneur and the president and founder of the Chittagong Women Chamber Of Commerce and Industry. She founded a tourism business in 1978. That was followed by environmentally friendly projects, involving compressed natural gas and solar panels.

A lifelong advocate for women’s economic empowerment, Khan has dedicated herself to the development of female entrepreneurs and to improving the lives of Bangladeshi women. To that end, she also established the Women Cooperative Bank Limited to provide much-needed funding and support to female entrepreneurs.

Exponential empowerment

Beyond the myriad individual success stories about women in marginalised communities fighting for increased power and opportunity, global organisations and multinational corporations are putting their weight behind the cause as well.

The Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi) is a consortium of governments, development banks, and other public and private sector stakeholders, hosted by the World Bank Group. Its mission is to address the financial and non-financial constraints faced by women-run SMEs in developing countries.

In April 2018, We-Fi announced its first $120 million round of funding allocations (which is expected to mobilise an additional $1.6 billion from the private sector). This is for programmes designed to tear down the barriers facing women entrepreneurs in developing countries.

Here’s a selection of those. There’s a proposal from the Islamic Development Bank to expand successful initiatives in Yemen, Mali and Nigeria. The Asian Development Bank is looking to improve the business environment for women in Sri Lanka. Finally, the World Bank Group will use its funds for activities to increase public and private sector support for women in business, with a focus on the poorest and most fragile environments.

Microfinance initiatives

Microfinance has long been a way to empower women who would otherwise not have access to capital.

The Women's Microfinance Initiative, a non-profit organization founded by a network of professional women in Washington, D.C., is making low-interest, collateral-free loans to women who have no access to formal banking services. The initiative promotes women's economic participation in poor, rural areas of Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. After two years in the village-level loan programme, women are able to access institutional financial services and join their country's formal economy.

In the private sector, Goldman Sachs‎’ 10,000 Women is a global program that fosters economic growth by providing women entrepreneurs around the world with training in business and management, mentoring and networking, and access to capital.

The Goldman Sachs programme was founded on the understanding that investing in women leads to economic growth and strengthens communities. To date, the programme has assisted thousands of women from over 56 countries. Participants report immediate and sustained business growth.

10,000 Women

In 2014, 10,000 Women partnered with the International Finance Corporation, a sister organization of the World Bank, to create the Women Entrepreneurs Opportunity Facility. This was the first global finance facility dedicated to women entrepreneurs. The $1 billion facility is aimed at closing the growing credit gap for female business owners.

When organisations like the World Bank, global investment banks like Goldman Sachs and non-profit initiatives put resources into empowering women in marginalised and impoverished communities, it exponentially increases the number of women like Fraser, Rionge and Khan. They, and those they help and inspire can rise above the systemic inequality and discrimination and beat the odds.

Download the 16th issue of Odgers Berndtson’s OBSERVE Magazine titled, ‘Women, Diversity and the Path to Greater Inclusion’. In it, we celebrate International Women’s Day and explore what is being done to enhance diversity and inclusion around the globe.

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