For women around the world, the global economy is not always friendly.
Despite evidence that the Gross Domestic Product increases in countries when women enter the formal economy at the same rate as men, obstacles to prevent this entry are numerous.
But, where there are strong women leaders, barriers crumble.
In Papua New Guinea, a male-dominated society, women are viewed by society as second-class citizens. Two out of every three women suffer from domestic violence. Girls are married off to resolve conflict within and across villages. For most women, starting their own business would be unthinkable. But some are not deterred by the limitations their society places on them.
One such woman is Plan International USA’s Global Women in Management (GWIM) alumna Margaret Harvey. She attended a floriculture training in 2003 and was determined to start her own flower business. However, owning her own flower shop was not enough. Margaret became involved with women’s associations and groups in her community and began training the members in floriculture. In 2013, she attended the GWIM workshop in Papua New Guinea where she learned new skills, tools, and methods to help her reach more women and grow her own business.
“Seeing the farmers’ flowers rotting in their farms prompted me to open a wholesale business in Port Moresby. [This business allowed me] to provide a wholesale market for rural women flower farmers to see and feel the real economic value of the fresh cut flower business,” Margaret said. “I began buying fresh cut flowers from these women farmers and airfreighting them to Port Moresby florists out of my hometown of Goroka.”
Margaret has since expanded her enterprise. She was vetted as a preferred vendor for events sponsored by ExxonMobil in PNG, and she has started to distribute organic honey and hand-ground coffee. In April, she will begin distributing fresh vegetables for more than 300 women farmers, who are ready to supply the Port Moresby market.
Ten thousand miles away, Lujain Al-Ubaid’s country of Saudi Arabia faces similar challenges with gender equality. While there has been some progress – overall literacy went from five percent to near 100 percent and last year women were allowed to vote for the first time – movement is slow. Lujain, like Margaret, did not let her environment determine her future. After pursing her education in the U.S., she had various jobs until she decided she wanted to do more. At 25, Lujain and some of her friends began their own non-profit that organized volunteers willing to implement programs. She attend GWIM in Washington D.C. in 2014. When she returned home she used the lessons she learned in the workshop to help grow her organization. Shortly after, Lujain became an Acumen fellow. Currently, Lujain is in Hyderabad, India, working as a Chief Strategy Officer at a social enterprise dedicated to providing life skills to the marginalized.
Five thousand miles from Saudi Arabia, women entrepreneurs in Liberia encounter a different set of problems as they continue to rebuild from years of conflict, followed by the Ebola crisis. Even with President Eleanor Sirleaf Johnson as a role model, gender equity is a struggle in Liberia. After their respective GWIM workshops, seven GWIM alumni came together to form the Women’s Empowerment Initiative of Liberia in June 2015. Working with a small start-up grant, they plan to step down the GWIM program and target women leaders at local non-profits with training that will strengthen their programs and impact at the community level. Their first trainings will begin in March.
From Monrovia, it is 2,000 miles to where Roxana Castro lives in Mexico. Mexico is striving to leave its machismo society in the past but, as in Papua New Guinea, domestic violence is still a huge problem, and many women cannot imagine what a life beyond poverty would look like. Roxana, who attended our most recent GWIM workshop in Colombia, is working with impoverished women through her social enterprise, Akumal. She trains the women in traditional crafts and sells their merchandise online and in stores. The workshop helped Roxana to formalize a plan to help more women realize their economic potential. Shortly after the workshop, she learned she was accepted into UnLtd USA’s social enterprise incubator workshop. This accelerator program provides seed money to companies, which in turn will invest back into the organization within three years.
“I have met other women who are working with ethical fashion from Africa, India, South America,” said Roxana. “One of these women started with a non-profit for refugees. They built a handicraft workshop with all the necessary equipment, and, right now, they are selling to IKEA. This is my dream and my vision, to form workshops in the communities of Mexico and Latin America and start selling to companies like IKEA that want to incorporate products of social entrepreneurs!”
The global economy is complex. While we still have not found a magic bullet that will ensure everyone can live a dignified life, we have found evidence that women are key to a stable global economy. As seen from this snapshot of entrepreneurs from around the world, supporting women leaders who are kickstarting their economies at the community level is a smart investment.