Fighting for Equality

“Gender equality should be at the heart of our programming. And that doesn’t just mean empowering women, it also means engaging men.” Misrach Mekonnen from CARE Ethiopia passionately promoted gender equality at a recent event in London, UK

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Written by Misrach Mekonnen

Misrach Mekonnen is a project manager for CARE Ethiopia. She was recently invited to speak at an event in London, UK, run by The Concordia Africa Initiative, to share her experience of working on women’s empowerment and entrepreneurship in Addis Ababa.  The Concordia event was focused on Youth Employment and Entrepreneurship in Africa.

 

This was my first visit to the UK and it was fantastic. London is a beautiful city, but I was a bit shocked by how expensive everything was!  The event was a great experience and I enjoyed meeting all the other guests from different countries and with varied areas of expertise.  

The first session I was invited to speak at was focused on start-up investment decisions and creating entrepreneurship opportunities in Africa. There were different experts from different countries, including investors and other NGOs.  Everyone else was talking about capacity building, access to markets and access to finance – which of course are vital elements to building an enterprise programme.  But the gender issue was very much neglected by the group, so I chose to focus on this by sharing the grass roots experiences of CARE Ethiopia from our Women for Women Project.

Through this programme, supported by H&M Foundation, we reached 5,000 women living in the slums of Addis Ababa. By providing them with enterprise support they increased their income by 500%.  Approximately 70% of the target group did not have any savings in the beginning of the project - this number was reduced to 3.6% in 2018.

In our programme, most of the women had started their business out of necessity, not opportunity. I explained that, without the necessary support, their chance of growth is very minimal. The support that we give to women should be very comprehensive.  In Ethiopia, mainly in rural areas, there are strong entrenched social norms, for example women can’t own or inherit land and they don’t have access to the same resources as men.  It’s very difficult, especially in rural areas.

If a woman wants access to credit or a loan from a formal financial institution, they will require collateral either in the form of land or cash. This makes it very difficult for a woman.  At the event I explained that this is why the support we offer must be fully comprehensive and address social norms.  If we fail to do this, then our impact may not be sustainable.  Gender equality should be at the heart of our programming.  And that doesn’t just mean empowering women, it also means engaging men and finding male role models who support women’s economic empowerment.  This way we can bring about lasting change.

Misrach in conversation at the Concordia conference

Something that amazed me from the discussion was the reaction of another guest from Egypt, he was really shocked by what I said about gender equality. He assumed that in a predominantly Christian country like Ethiopia, men and women were equal.  I told him that it has nothing to do with religion, it is to do with cultural and social norms. He said that gender equality wasn’t an issue in his country.  I found this quite shocking as even in developed countries there is a gender gap.  I hope I have given him more to think about on the gender divide!

The second session I was invited to speak at was focused on regulation and strategies related to entrepreneurship. We talked about how Governments have different strategies to empower women.  In Ethiopia, the Government supports small and micro enterprise development, but it is still very difficult for women entrepreneurs on a small scale to access formal financial institutions.  Banks are mainly state controlled and discriminate against women, with very limited access to products and services. Women are considered to be risky clients but we have seen through our programme that women are good savers and they do pay back their loans on time.

I think it’s vital that financial service providers have women friendly products for female entrepreneurs. Through our project we had a loan guarantee fund which put the microfinance provider at ease.  I think financial service providers need to find different ways to work with women, for example by reducing interest rates or changing the rules around collateral.

At the event we all agreed that different countries require different interventions, but there always needs to be Government support for job creation and entrepreneurship initiatives. The Government cannot do this alone though and there needs to be collaboration between the Government, private sector and NGOs.  We have a new Government in Ethiopia and fifty per cent of Parliament are now female, which is a very big shift.  This is a good change in terms of female participation, but so much more needs to happen to ensure gender equality, especially at a grass roots level.  If we all work together, I am sure positive change can happen.

My main take-away from the event was that Africa has huge potential for youth employment and I think entrepreneurship is one of the ways for African countries to be able to eradicate poverty. Following the event I will now be even more committed to promoting gender equality.  There are people who don’t know the real challenges that women face and the deep rooted social norms that exist.  I want to raise more awareness on this, as well as be part of the solution.

“We want to challenge certain deeply entrenched ideas about who can be a successful entrepreneur.”

“One of the most effective ways to combat poverty is to empower women economically. If you help a woman, you help the whole community.” Diana Amini, Director of H&M Foundation explains why they support CARE's work.

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