Notes from the Field

South Asian Women Entrepreneurs Challenge Status Quo

December 18, 2013

It was Sabita Mahajan‘s first time flying out of Nepal. She was a bit afraid and nervous on her way from Kathmandu to New Delhi, India, where she was traveling for an exposure tour for businesswomen, hosted by The Asia Foundation. The exposure tour, held in October 2013, was designed as a follow-on activity to the December 2012 South Asia Women’s Entrepreneurship Symposium. On the exposure tour, Sabita spent six days in India where she met other women entrepreneurs from all over South Asia and visited factories and organizations owned and run by women, including a paper factory and a traditional textile design and printing organization, providing an opportunity to develop her knowledge of good business practices.

SAWES delegation

Sabita Mahajan (front left) visits a paper factory with other South Asian women entrepreneurs on an exposure trip to India, hosted by The Asia Foundation.

At the end of the tour, Sabita told her story. As a survivor of domestic violence, Sabita decided to end the cycle of violence in her home, for her son. She left her abusive husband but found herself unable to go back to her maiden home. As a Nepali woman, like many women in South Asia where laws to protect women’s property rights are not in place or are poorly implemented, she could not claim her rights to her ancestral home, a place where she spent all her childhood. She soon realized that it was up to her to find a way to survive and ensure her son could go to school. Sabita had learned to stitch when she was young, and she used that skill to start a small collective of women who could knit and they started to earn some money. Soon, she was able to pay not only the rent for her one-room apartment but also fees for her son’s education. But Sabita did not stop there. She also wanted to help other women in her situation. She started a literacy program in her community to help other women access education and build their own livelihoods. As the demand for her literacy program and her knitting business grew, Sabita decided to expand. She applied for a loan through a program run by the Federation of Business and Professional Women in Nepal and got seed money to start her own knitting business. Today, Sabita employs 125 women in her business in Kirtipur municipality and continues to provide literacy classes in her community.

Sabita’s struggle with domestic violence is not a rare story in South Asia, but her ability to survive and ultimately rebuild her life and inspire others is a story that needs to be told. If Sabita did not have knitting skills perhaps her story would not have a happy ending. In Nepal, as in many other South Asian countries, women face societal constraints and discrimination based on deeply entrenched values and perceptions about women’s role in society, which has a significant impact on their entry into businesses. Women still own less than 10 percent of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in South Asia, and the UN reports that 80 percent of working women in this region are in what is considered vulnerable employment. Furthermore, while women’s contributions have great potential for bolstering these countries’ economies, women still face many obstacles in accessing credit, training, networks and information, as well as legal and policy constraints. Women are discouraged to learn skills that go beyond farming and housekeeping, and even more discouraged to become economically self-sufficient.

In light of this, one year ago, the U.S. State Department hosted the first South Asia Women’s Entrepreneurship Symposium in Dhaka to enhance regional economic integration and advance economic growth, peace, and stability through women’s economic empowerment. The event brought together 120 women from across South and Central Asia and has been a platform for catalyzing follow-on activities to advance women’s entrepreneurship in the region.

SAWES has hosted two exposure visits so far to Sri Lanka and India, each time bringing together women entrepreneurs like Sabita from the region to share experiences and achievements, challenges they face as women entrepreneurs, and ways to push for policies in their countries that advance women’s economic rights. For Sabita, coming to India was an opportunity for her to realize that she was not alone in her struggles. Moreover, it allowed her to realize that she could expand her growing business by networking with businesses in other countries.

Since SAWES began one year ago, its network has grown to 23,000 people on Facebook, and includes members from organizations working on women’s economic empowerment and federations of women entrepreneurs across South Asia. They regularly engage in exposure tours, workshops, webinars, and provide financial support for innovative ways to advance women’s entrepreneurship in each of the five countries. The next SAWES exposure visit will be held in Bangladesh from March 8-10, 2014, and will be provide an opportunity for women to network and visit innovative businesses in Bangladesh.

Rozana Majumdar is a program officer for The Asia Foundation in Bangladesh and Reecha Upadhyay is a program officer in the Foundation’s India office. They can be reached at rozana.majumdar@asiafoundation.org and reecha.upadhyay@asiafoundation.org, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

2 comments on this post:

  1. Reecha upadhyay:

    Dear Chen,

    Would love to talk to you about how to integrate economic empowerment in your project. Please write to me directly on reecha.upadhyay@asiafoundation.org.

    Best,
    Reecha

  2. Chen Tingting:

    Rozana and Reecha, thanks a lot for sharing Sabita’s very encouraging story. We recently launched an anti-domestic violence project here in China. There are some livelihood rebuilding elements for DV survivors in our original project design. When we went into the target community and interviewed various stakeholders,economic burdens on the households was one of the two commonly identified causes for domestic violence in addition to alcoholism. We thus started to rethink that perhaps economic empowerment should come in earlier to even the prevention and intervention stages. We don’t know yet how to well integrate economic empowerment into the current project given the limited resources but will look forward to exchanging more with you guys. And, would love to learn more about any established experiences on this regard from your programs.

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