Notes from the Field

Breaking Down Obstacles to Asia’s Women Entrepreneurs

October 10, 2012

At the second APEC Women and the Economy Forum held in St. Petersburg in June, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that: “Limiting women’s economic potential is for every country like leaving money on the table. It doesn’t make sense, especially when we are still struggling to grow our way out of the economic crisis.”

Ms. Sim Sour runs a cooking pot (clay oven) factory in Kampong Chhnang

Ms. Sim Sour runs a cooking pot (clay oven) factory in Kampong Chhnang, Cambodia. Women now make up 40 percent of the global workforce. Photo/Karl Grobl

In fact, women entrepreneurs are critical to the economies across Asia: As Clinton noted in her remarks, there are nearly 6 million formal, women-owned small businesses in East Asia, and in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, women-owned businesses are increasing and growing at a fast rate. Women now represent 40 percent of the global labor force, 43 percent of the global agricultural workforce, and more than half of the world’s university students.

Unfortunately, despite these impressive figures, evidence shows that women entrepreneurs across Asia still face challenges that limit their full participation. According to the World Bank’s 2010 Economic Opportunities for Women in East Asia and Pacific Region, while laws in the region show parity for men and women on paper, institutions often fail to implement these laws in a gender-equitable manner. Difficult start-up costs and regulations affect both men and women, but are often more burdensome for women who generally own less property and therefore have less access to capital, and greater time restrictions due to household and family responsibilities. In addition, cultural attitudes and workplace policies are often unfriendly to women, placing limitations on family leave and flexible work schedules.

To help generate attention to the pressing issues that women across Asia face, The Asia Foundation is co-hosting an event on Thursday, October 18 in San Francisco. The event, “Women’s Economic Empowerment & Entrepreneurship in Asia,” is sponsored by global architecture, design and planning firm, Gensler, and co-hosted with the Global Fund for Women. The event will feature Ms. Rokia Afzal Rahman, the president of the Bangladesh Federation of Women Entrepreneurs and Asia Foundation partner, and also Ms. Gigi Francisco, with the Development Alternatives with Women for the New Era.

The Asia Foundation has long supported women entrepreneurship in Asia, through programs designed to involve women at all levels and provide linkages between civil society and governments. For example, we are working in partnership with APEC on investigating barriers to growth and access to trade among women-led small and medium businesses in Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia. The project uses both quantitative surveys and qualitative case studies to examine the economic, policy, and cultural barriers to women’s entrepreneurship and trade across these four countries. The research will inform policy locally, nationally, and regionally to enable each country to more effectively address these constraints. Results will be disseminated at the next Women and the Economy Forum in Bali in 2013. Research findings will also be disseminated directly to women in business through national workshops in Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines as well as a regional workshop in Malaysia.

And, in Bangladesh, where women frequently lack access to expertise and networks to become SME entrepreneurs, we have established forums in four districts where women entrepreneurs come together to advocate for better access to loans and discuss common challenges. These Foundation-led workshops empower them to negotiate a solution with the bank, and as a result, more women are now finding the means to grow their own business and boost employment in their region. Recently, Ms. Rahman’s organization, the Bangladesh Women’s Entrepreneurship Association, The Asia Foundation, and Management and Resources Development Initiative (MRDI) signed an agreement to partner together to improve women’s access to information and promote networking among women business leaders to create a better business climate for women. “Through our support to public-private fora, we facilitate communication and partnerships among local entrepreneurs and business associations, civil society organizations and government officials,” said Hasan Mazumdar, The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Bangladesh.

Women’s economic opportunities are a strong factor in Asia’s continuing development. The Asia Foundation has been a longstanding partner in advancing women’s economic opportunities, particularly by helping women entrepreneurs gain access to credit and loans and leverage networks to voice their needs to government partners. The event on October 18 will highlight our longstanding commitment to women’s economic opportunities and provide a chance to learn more about our work on the ground.

If you are interested in attending this event, contact Shirmila Cooray: scooray@asiafound-dc.org.

Carol Yost is director for The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program and Shirmila Cooray is the program associate for the Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program in Washington, D.C. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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