Start-ups and Support Networks – Women’s Economic Empowerment in Central Asia
Women have made enormous strides towards economic empowerment over the past century. But progress is uneven around the world, and women are behind men on a range of indicators from having a bank account to starting their own business.
Investing in women’s economic empowerment does more than just improve the situation for working women: it also benefits children, families and entire communities, and will be a key ingredient in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. According to the UN, “gender equality significantly contributes to advancing economies and sustainable development.”
Projects in Central Asia – a region not often prioritized in development aid - provide examples of small investments which can change lives.
Formaper, an agency of Milan’s Chamber of Commerce active in Central Asia, helps vulnerable groups including victims of domestic violence to develop their own businesses. It connects women to banks and micro-credit organisations, but its support goes beyond financing.
“We design an integrated approach: not only economic but also social empowerment is important,” said Olga Nogaeva, international project manager at Formaper.
The first step is providing professional psychological assistance. “We support women in each and every difficult situation - it can be a difficult marriage, it can be parental issues, it can be issues with in-laws and so forth. Then it’s accompanied by legal advice on aspects that can be property or inheritance rights, childcare support, social security and so forth. And only after that we move to economic sustainability.”
Through Formaper, women are given access to information, training on business plan development and microcredit. “Thanks to special agreements with a microcredit bank in Uzbekistan, we’ve managed to get a 3% interest rate for women, compared to 12% average in the country, with 18 months on return. We also provide additional help if they want to open a bank account,” said Nogaeva.
Connections, says Nogaeva, are the key. “I think in any country one of the challenges of making this type of project a real success is having a very well developed private-public partnership platform, a network,” said Nogaeva.
One example is Formaper’s connection with the 'HUNARMAND' Association of Artisans, Craftsmen and Painters of the Republic of Uzbekistan. “All 137 of our women who have begun startups have become members of this association by just paying one annual fee. What does it mean? The status of a craftsman rather than a private business entrepreneur makes these women exempt from taxes. And it gives them an opportunity to work at home and hire up to five other people. They can be their family members, or other unemployed women from the community.”
“Another good thing is that by being members of this association the women qualify and mature for pension benefits. So as you see all these stakeholders that we involved bring their inputs to the project and make them much more successful.”
Complementing Formaper’s work, the Marta Resource Centre for Women tries to tackle the root causes of inequality and violence, and lay the foundations for women’s economic empowerment.
A large part of the work concerns changing people’s attitudes. “Typically if you suffer from violence you are considered guilty yourself, you did not do something right – so the victim is always blamed and not the perpetrator,” said Iluta Lace, director of the Marta Resource Centre for Women.
“In Osh [in Kyrgyzstan] they have created self-support groups. And what is nice is that women are not working against [a woman who has been abused], and blaming her, but start to change society by supporting her and trying to change this blaming attitude. Showing that it’s not just a family conflict or a private issue, that it’s actually society’s issue. It’s a public health issue.”
Marta works with local authorities and mahallahs [similar to a parishes] to try to stop early marriages, domestic violence and trafficking. “We work to understand the local context and find local institutions, local leaders that could be involved to support every individual case.”
Marta then provides women with psychological, legal and practical help to find or create employment. “If we provide the preconditions – that you are safe, you don’t need to worry somebody will hit you or control you – you are able to work, can bring income and it will be better for the welfare of the whole family,” said Lace.
“What we are really happy about is that we didn’t support only thousands of women in their individual situations, but we also see that this model – at least part of the model – is replicated within governmental organisations.”
The cost of these projects is low, yet the results can be life-changing. “Our projects range between €200-250,000 with a duration of 20-22 months,” said Nogaeva. “Even with small amounts, they really manage to make a change, because they are targeting the population that nobody had thought of before. And with the help of this EU funding we are able to provide a valuable social service which otherwise at the state level would not have been provided.”
- V&V: Rebuilding Women and Communities Affected by Violence
- ILO Women’s Entrepreneurship Programme
- UN Women
- World Bank Gender Overview
Teaser Image Credit: ADB via Creative Commons