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Women entrepreneurship: a road to decent work and MDGs in Africa

In Africa the equal rights of women and their equal participation in the social, cultural, economic and political life have remained illusive. Women are still the main victims of poverty, social prejudice, lack of access to health services and education.

Article | 04 May 2007

In Africa the equal rights of women and their equal participation in the social, cultural, economic and political life have remained illusive. Women are still the main victims of poverty, social prejudice, lack of access to health services and education. During the XIth African Regional Meeting of the ILO in Addis Ababa, a panel discussion on women's entrepreneurship involving UNDP Administrator Kemal Dervis, ILO Director-General Juan Somavia and ILO Regional Director for Africa, Regina Amadi-Njoku as well as workers' and employers' representatives, concluded that empowering African women can empower Africa.

ADDIS ABABA (ILO News) – Hadinet Medhin, born into a farming family in Adwa in Tigray, was 20 years old when she became both visually and hearing impaired in 1988 as the result of a grenade attack.

Besides natural disasters and economic disadvantage, the population of Ethiopia has endured three decades of war. War in the Tigray region in the 1980s displaced hundreds of thousands of people and left many more disabled, including the women.

Hadinet's husband sells construction materials and wholesales teff, or wheat and pulses. She tried to develop a business producing, buying and selling milk. But the profit wasn't good. And when her cow died, she had to find some other form of earning a livelihood.

She borrowed some money from relatives and set up a shop in front of her house. "I sell sugar, coffee, soap, washing powder, stationery, plastic shoes and other goods," she said. "I manage the shop myself but make business decisions and do record-keeping jointly with my husband. I don't know yet what my monthly sales will be."

Hadinet's experiences are emblematic of the challenges millions of women here and in other countries in Africa face today. The story of Hadinet underscored one of the objectives of the panel discussion – to exchange views on how promoting entrepreneurship and decent work for women can contribute not only to their empowerment but to the removal of structural and legal barriers as well.

"We should see women's entrepreneurship as an entry point to achieve Decent Work and the Millennium Development Goals" (MDGs), said Ms. Gertrude Mongella, Chairperson of the Pan-African Parliament who addressed the panel organized under the theme of "Women's empowerment through Women's entrepreneurship and Decent Work in the Africa region" at the UN Conference Center of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA).

"Women's empowerment is a key strategy in achieving gender equality", she said, adding that despite playing an increasing role in Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMES) in Africa, women still face major constraints in establishing and running businesses.

The theme that women entrepreneurship is the best route to achieving Decent Work and the MDGs was predominant in the discussions here. "Women's entrepreneurship has an impact on poverty reduction and achievement of the MDGs", said Ms. Thokozile Ruzvidzo, from the Division of Gender and Social Development of the UN Economic Commission for Africa.

Still, in a continent where entrepreneurship is generally low, the challenges faced by women in this area are even greater. And yet, change is in the air. In recent years, Africa has witnessed the phenomenal growth of the informal and the micro, small and medium enterprise sectors, much of it driven by women.

According to Gerry Finnegan, Director, ILO Lusaka and senior specialist in Women's Entrepreneurship Development, "The ILO's Decent Work agenda provides a valuable framework for considering effective ways for supporting women entrepreneurs".

The Irish Aid/ILO programme "Developing Entrepreneurship among Women with Disabilities" (DEWD) aims to facilitate the access of women entrepreneurs with disabilities (WEWDs) to mainstream women's entrepreneurship development (WED) activities in five sub-Saharan African countries. It does this through close cooperation with another Ireland-funded ILO project, "Promoting Women's Entrepreneurship Development and Gender Equality" (WEDGE), which works on enhancing economic opportunities for women entrepreneurs (WEs) in general.

WEDGE offers a model for an ILO strategy in women's entrepreneurship development with a three-pronged strategy: promoting knowledge about women's entrepreneurship; supporting voice and representation for women entrepreneurs; and developing a variety of services targeted at women entrepreneurs and their service providers.

"When you empower African women, you empower Africa", the ILO Director-General Juan Somavia said, adding that fostering women entrepreneurship in Africa is crucial for the development of the continent.

In a brief statement, the UNDP Administrator Kemal Dervis insisted that African women are a "driving force at all levels" in a continent where "women leadership" is a tradition particularly in trade.

Across Africa, the ILO is working with development partners including the UNDP. "In the context of the "One UN", the ILO is working actively on a joint programme for the economic empowerment of women in Mozambique", Mr. Finnegan said.

Participants agreed that women's entrepreneurship could be a channel for instituting mechanisms that provide greater protection, security and safety to women entrepreneurs and their families and communities. It further ensures that women, particularly marginalized women, become aware of their rights and entitlements to available resources. This contributes to combating discrimination in the labour market.