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New economic opportunities: Women’s entrepreneurship in the HKH

By Dr Kamala Gurung and Dr Pranita Bhushan Udas

“I seek training, not for me, but for my family members, so that they understand what I am doing when I go out of the home to attend trainings, sell the product, and liaise with traders and officers.”

– Female vegetable farmer, representative of the multipurpose cooperative, Surkhet Nepal

On 21 January 2016, the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon announced the first-ever High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment to provide leadership and mobilize concrete action aimed at closing the economic gender gaps that persist around the world. Women’s economic empowerment has been an important agenda for achieving women’s emancipation and equality. Women’s economic empowerment also has benefits for family wellbeing and health. Women with access to economic opportunities have expressed increased self-esteem, dignity, independence, enhanced capacities, and empowerment.

The Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region is dominated by agrarian communities with a large rural population engaged in subsistence agroforestry-livestock-based production on increasingly fragmented landholdings. Agroforestry-based enterprises (such as Non-Timber Forest Products) are considered a primary means of reducing poverty and achieving food security by enhancing economic opportunities in HKH communities.

Development initiatives to enhance women’s economic opportunities, such as the Kailash Sacred Landscape Conservation and Development Initiative (KSLCDI) in India, Nepal, and Tibet Autonomous Regions (TAR); the Kangchenjunga Landscape Conservation and Development Initiative (KLCDI) in Bhutan, India, and Nepal; and the High Value Agriculture Project (HVAP) in the hills and mountains of Nepal, have shown that women want to become involved in enterprises. For instance, the majority of vegetable farming enterprises in these projects and initiatives are handled by women. Women are actively involved from farming to selling their products and have control over the income generated. Women also contribute significantly to cottage and small-scale enterprises and are commonly employed in processing enterprises.

Women’s involvement in economic activities enhances their capacity, skills related to micro-enterprises and decision-making authority, as well as social networks. However, these women face challenges, such as lower prices for their products, mobility constraints due to socio-cultural norms, safety issues, and difficulties juggling work and household responsibilities, among other things. Such challenges raise concerns about women’s equal participation, especially in decision-making processes. ICIMOD, along with its partners, is working to address such challenges to promote gender equality through entrepreneurship development in the HKH region.

Micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises have been recognized as a crucial way of promoting women’s economic empowerment to overcome poverty and gender inequity. There are multiple benefits to women’s increased economic empowerment through the promotion of entrepreneurship including, for instance, increased mobility, the creation of women’s networks, and building solidarity among women to help them to raise their voices and influence the development agenda. Women’s economic empowerment is also critical to achieving gender equality, goal five of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. To take this forward, in some places, training on ‘visioning’ for family enterprises has helped women to be fully engaged with their enterprises.

Rural women increasingly run their own enterprises, are bread winners for their families, and probably also the ‘bread makers’. However, their real entrepreneurial potential remains largely untapped for three principal reasons: social norms and traditional values, inadequate access to financial services, and inadequate business skills and access to markets.

Social norms and traditional values hold women back from fully participating in economic activities. Social norms and traditional patriarchal systems continue to create a barrier to women’s full participation in economic activities. Often women’s abilities and potential are undervalued and questioned. Women’s networks and associations have the potential to increase women’s self-esteem and their access to a range of services. For instance, self-help groups are an example of a ‘group approach’ to bringing rural women together across the HKH region for economic and social empowerment. Such groups can provide a platform for business networking, sharing ideas, contacts and news, and securing future business opportunities. However, women may be inhibited in networking in associations and chambers of commerce, as these are primarily male domains.

Inadequate access to financial services is another stumbling block for women, despite the success of micro credit organizations across the HKH. For instance, in Bangladesh, the average credit received from NGOs by women is about Bangladeshi taka (BDT) 14,700 (USD 204), which is not enough to invest in business. With respect to access to loans from the banking sector, women entrepreneurs identified lack of capital and assets as obstacles. Financial institutions are generally unaware of the Bangladesh Bank’s refinancing scheme for women.

Inadequate business skills and lack of access to markets also hinder the growth of women’s enterprises. The major obstacles identified by women entrepreneurs include a lack of skills in entrepreneurship and product development, as well as insufficient training, both theoretical and practical, in marketing. Women are less likely to have a business-related education background, which is an important determinant of entrepreneurial success. Improving women’s access to markets can also help expand their business and customer base.

It is crucial to address these social and economic constraints on women’s entrepreneurship and economic empowerment through research, advocacy, and policy interventions in order to help women in producing, marketing, connecting, and leading enterprises towards achieving gender equality.

About The Author

Dr. Kamala Gurung (kamala.gurung@icimod.org) is Gender and NRM Specialist and Dr. Pranita Bhushan Udas (pranita.udas@icimod.org) is Gender, Water and Adaptation Specialist in theLivelihoods Theme, at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, ICIMOD.
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