Womens groups and advocates in the southern hemisphere, have over the past several decades worked individually and collaboratively on a variety of issues to improve the lives of women, and by extension their families. They have challenged the systems that deny them their full legal rights as citizens. For some they have had to live for years on end in an environment of economic and political turmoil.
Success has been incremental and slow and the progress that has been made cannot be overlooked. However, while gains are made in some areas there are lost gains in others. And even when progress is made in one sector, the never diminishing obstacles women continue to face and need to overcome within that same sector, suggests that women are not necessarily enjoying the benefits of progress. Is it really progress then, when over half the population of many countries still cannot access education, health care etc?
My presentation will narrow this board discussion to some of the challenges women face in Ghana and in Nepal.
The effects of the economic policies promoted and demanded by the Breton Woods institution in the 1980s have, and continue to impact the lives of Ghanaians in general and Ghanaian women entrepreneurs in particular. These policies demanded the removal of subsidies, the opening of markets and the privatization of state social structures such as medical care, water, agricultural inputs etc. While these measures were considered necessary for the economy to regain its health, Ghana was mired in debt; had, and still has no real control over pricing of its goods on the international markets; and has an inadequate taxation and collection system. For such a small economy, with primary products such as gold, cocoa etc., the challenges facing the government to adequately respond to the needs of its citizens is undeniable. It requires the government to be innovative, to invest in human resources, natural resources and to create an environment that affords equal access, by both men and women, to initiatives that would improve their lives. The economic policies that were expected to bring Ghana out of its economic quagmire have negatively impacted the poor the vast majority of whom are women. While the economy is said to have improved significantly in recent times, the government still relies heavily on foreign aid. Similarly civil society groups also rely on aid from overseas donors to implement their programmes.
Under the current government, much of the economic policies have been geared to the private sector while also attracting big business. There have been no significant attempts to target women entrepreneurs to move from the micro to the meso level even though women have valuable experiences and comprise a large percentage of the informal sector. During all the political and economic upheavals and changes in Ghana, this informal sector remained constant in providing goods and services to the populace. As a result, the government should build the capacity and should support women-owned businesses.
Notwithstanding the proverbial entrepreneurial acumen of the Ghanaian woman trader, women in Ghana have difficulty accessing capital for either business start-ups or business expansion, including the acquisition of equipment to modernize and improve production. The significant obstacle that women entrepreneurs face in Ghana today is, access to capital from commercial lending houses that charge interest rates of 25% 30% per annum. In addition, collateral is required of borrowers and most frequently women are not able to provide this. The inability to raise adequate capital means that many women entrepreneurs continue to operate at the micro level in spite of their capability to expand their business. Some resort to seeking loans at more reasonable rates from friends and family, while a few choose to access capital from loan sharks who demand usury rates. It is no wonder therefore, that women-owned businesses remain at the micro-level. The World Bank estimates suggest that 70% of the employment rate in Ghana is in micro and medium level enterprises. The steep lending rate of banks and demands for collateral impede or slows the rate of success of new and existing business. Commercial banks prefer lending to larger enterprises they consider less of a lending risk. These larger businesses, usually owned by men, are able to secure better terms and rates. As a result, women owned businesses have little chance to access capital to inject into otherwise promising enterprises.
In recent months, I have been working with a number of women to develop either feasibility studies or business plans to start new businesses. They have been able to access venture capital from individuals to start their businesses. One recent success is the opening of a small, modern and excellent restaurant in Accra. The woman owner could not raise capital from the commercial banks because of steep interest rates, unfavourable terms and was unable to provide collateral. She eventual raised capital from a small group of women private investors to support her enterprise. Today, eight months after opening her restaurant she has started to repay the $35,000 loan she raised and intends to pay this loan in full by June 2008. She has all the certification she is required by law to have to run a healthy and legal restaurant and has been selected as one of the best-run restaurants in the country by the Ghana Tourist Board. For the records, this woman is a capable, well educated and articulate professional, yet she was unable to raise capital for her enterprise from mainstream sources. One can only hazard a guess at the reception a less educated woman, who wants to open a small eatery, would receive from a commercial bank. This success story is only one example of the possibilities of partnering with women in business and is not a rare indication of the capabilities of Ghanaian women entrepreneurs to move from the micro to the meso and to the macro level of economic activity. With the right tools, including modern technology, access to technical and financial resources, many women-owned business will succeed.
Non-governmental organizations, and individuals for that matter, can support women entrepreneurs by partnering with them in order to provide technical and financial assistance, in the form of grants, which in return will help them avoid the debt trap and impossible demands of a variety of lenders.
The Government of Ghana announced in 2005 that a new initiative of the Ministry of Womens and Childrens Affairs would make available long-term support (technical and financial) to women-owned manufacturing businesses. However while this is laudable, given the history of similar well meaning government initiatives, access to this long-term support will be bound by the usual red-tape bureaucracy and will not be made available to a broader cross section of potential users. The variety of constraints to offering this initiative to a wider selection of women owned business cannot be ignored but we can still note that it is only women-owned manufacturing businesses that the government expects to access the support. We must also note that by situating this initiative within the Ministry of Womens and Childrens Affairs, it removes potential women-owned manufacturing businesses from the mainstream of capital sourcing to a government department. Department mandates are usually open for revision depending on the political climate as government priorities change. An alternative measure would be for the government to offer incentives and to challenge the financial houses to develop reasonable and affordable lending programmes that women entrepreneurs can access. Indeed a national vision that puts people first recognizes that the economy is an engine of growth that should enhance the well being of all its citizens including women. The advocacy that will be required for change will need to come from the government, civil society groups and the private sector. As well, donor agencies like CIDA and SIDA can play a role.
I am also aware of a group of women working on developing a plan to build student hostels for students in the universities and at the tertiary levels in Accra. I am informed that this idea is also germinating in Kumasi and Cape Coast both cities that host universities and polytechnics. There is apparently an acute shortage of safe accommodation for students, particularly female students. Education is now more accessible than it was thirty years ago. Progress has indeed been made in that sector because the student population in all the universities in the country exceeds both living and classroom accommodation offered by these institutions. Education is very much valued and seen as both a viable exit from poverty and from the harsh conditions of life in the rural areas. This group of women entrepreneurs if successful in attracting venture capital and at reasonable terms and interest rates, will provide much need hostel accommodation for students.
Women in Nepal, much like many in other developing countries, are working at different fronts to assert their citizenship in their country. Citizenship is supposed to guaranty freedom, justice and position women as equals. While citizenship
carries responsibilities, demands participation and should value women, unfortunately tradition and culture, challenges on a continuing basis, the equal rights of women in Nepal. Within the religious sphere in Nepal, women play many roles and are viewed both positively and negatively. On the one hand, both men and women pay respect to goddesses in the temple. Prativa Subedi, a social activist in Nepal in her book Nepali Women Rising, reminds us that there were women such as Ramasha and Ghosha who contributed stanzas to the Rig Veda. That there were learned women like Gargi who were considered great intellectuals. In spite of this recognition however, perceptions and comments that degrade women can be found in ancient literature and this trend continues to this day.
It is against this conflicting background where women are sometimes valued and sometimes not, that the contemporary womens movement was born and where women have had to plan strategies to change their status in Nepal. They have had to do this in a hostile political atmosphere and in geographical terrain that is harsh.
Some of the structures that subordinate women are the discriminatory legal system, discriminatory religious beliefs and economic restrictions that relegate women to poverty and to the margins of society in one of the poorest countries in Asia. In Nepal, though there are changes and some progress is being made in acknowledging that women are not only appendages of their husbands or currency for parents who want to marry them off, equal pay for work of equal value has not yet been achieved.
Some ten years ago, MATCH International Centre supported Womens Awareness Centre of Nepal (WACN) to provide credit to women living in the mountain areas who needed financing for their small-scale enterprises. One particular recipient of the credit was an illiterate woman who had never traveled to Kathmandu the capital and who was unaware of all the changes in government over several decades, spoke to the staff of WACN about her desire to open a small eatery. Since she could not write, her idea was all in her head. Nevertheless, her response to the interviewer indicated that she had done her market research including recognizing the best spot to locate her eatery, her projected earnings etc. etc. She obtained credit and has successfully run her eatery all these years. Like her sister in Ghana, she could not access capital from a mainstream financial house because she neither was able to bear the cost of borrowing as she was considered a risk, nor did she have collateral.
One would like to believe that the lack of natural resources is the main culprit for Nepal being one of poorest and least developed nations in the world. According to Nepals 1996/1997 National Planning Commission (NPC) figures, 42% of the population lives below the poverty line. The figure the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) gives is 48%. This supposes that poverty is gender neutral as it applies to both men and women. Yet in 1992 IFAD did a study and revealed that 56 % of rural women are living below the poverty line. Agriculture sustains 76% of the population and accounts for about 38% of the GDP; services comprise 41% and industry 21%. Though Ghana, unlike Nepal, is blessed with natural resources, women in both countries comprise of the larger proportion of those living under the poverty line. A document prepared by the group Nari Chetna Kendra Nepal in 2005, note that micro-economic policies in Nepal need to be reviewed to uplift the socio-economic status of women. They, like women in many parts of the world, argue that women are excluded from contributing and developing policies and strategies to eradicate poverty. Nepali women who are engaged in civil society have become articulate advocates for a better future. Women, they posit, have less access to education, health services, credit facilities and productive employment opportunities. The political instability that includes the long-standing simmering civil war, with the main proponents being the government and the Maoists insurgents, has created an environment of fear and despondency. In fact, activists from civil society groups are constantly under duress to swear allegiance to the Maoist insurgents who recognize the facility of civil society groups to access many across the country with the intention of broadening their base and following. Refusal to support or align with the Maoist insurgents puts activists and their families at risk of being killed.
The lethal combination of poverty, political instability and insecurity in a society that devalues women has provided an environment rife for the global enterprise of the trafficking of women. Women are lured to countries in the region, but mainly to neighbouring and easily accessible India, with the prospects of earning an income to extricate themselves and their families out of the poverty that stifles them in Nepal.
While some know the ramifications of leaving Nepal to seek greener pastures elsewhere, and that their journey will demand that they work as prostitutes and work in brothels where they have no control over their earnings and where they will undoubtedly contract HIV/AIDS, others are innocent parties to this economic activity and leave Nepal in the hope that their lives and that of their families will improve. Unfortunately, once they are no longer useful, they are sent back to Nepal where health care is inaccessible to them. Civil society groups need support to reach and inform these vulnerable women in order to dissuade them from being sold into a life of prostitution. Equally important is that womens groups need continued support in the planning and execution of strategies that would move women from the margins of society to becoming active citizens who contribute in a legal way to the economy of Nepal. Donors including Canada, Italy and Holland should work with the Nepali government to: i) stem this flow of human capital and ii) to mete out severe punishment for those violating the laws meant to protect women.
While progress is being made regarding the status of women, much more needs to be achieved. The battle for womens equality is far from over because gains are being made and lost. Global communication now makes it easier for linkages to be formed and ideas and strategies to be shared. Policymaking needs to be an inclusive process comprising of all actors and sectors of society in order for all citizens to enjoy their fundamental human rights.
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