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Xth African Regional Meeting. Gender and poverty: Planting the "SEEDs" of change

Many women in Africa are inordinately affected by poverty. But there are success stories. This article explains how the ILO Programme on Boosting Employment through Small Enterprise Development (IFP/SEED), and its team working on Women's Entrepreneurship Development and Gender Equality (WEDGE), can help plant the seeds of change for Africa's women workers.

Article | 26 November 2003

At a recent African business seminar, two women converged on the road out of poverty. For 60 year-old Hadiya, the trip to discuss her work selling crafts and doormats was a chance to proclaim that she was "promoting gender equality" in her village. Forty year-old Marwe was equally eager to share her experience as a producer and marketer of spice-based soaps, when she spoke to the small group of women entrepreneurs.

"While others participating in trade fairs choose to have their photographs taken alongside influential men", she said. "I am selling my soaps and handing out my business cards to their wives."

Both women are in the vanguard of a new cadre of female entrepreneurs working with the ILO Programme on Boosting Employment through Small Enterprise Development (IFP/SEED), and its team working on Women's Entrepreneurship Development and Gender Equality (WEDGE).

Hadiya and Marwe served as role models for some 30 other business-minded women representing associations of women entrepreneurs and enterprises from southern and eastern Africa, who gathered to learn about the important role their organizations play in advocating and voicing the concerns of their members. Working with national employers' organizations, such organizations of women entrepreneurs can influence policies and implement a range of business advisory and support services for members.

"Building bridges between government and workers' and employers' groups is key if we are to have micro- and small-enterprise policies, and trade polices that promote gender equality and that are pro-poor", says Mr. Gerry Finnegan, Senior Specialist of ILO IFP/SEED.

Rural and poor

Today, poverty remains a particularly acute state for African women and girls – many of whom work in agriculture or in rural areas. Although sub-Saharan Africa has a large proportion of women in the labour force – in fact higher than the international average – women and girls are frequently trapped in the lowest paid, least skilled and most precarious occupations. What's more, gender discrimination remains a deep-seated impediment to growth and development. While the share of women's wage employment in the non-agricultural sector in sub-Saharan Africa increased from 18.9 per cent in 1990, to 28.6 per cent in 2001, male participation rates across the region are all above 80 per cent.

Globally, women have come a long way in the labour market, now representing half the labour force in some countries. Still, labour markets remain strongly segregated and an extremely high number of women are locked into jobs few men will take because of their low status and precarious nature. Even for similar work, women typically earn 20 to 30 per cent less than men.

Promoting more and better jobs for women has been shown to be essential for fighting poverty. The report, "Decent work for Africa's development", prepared for the ILO Xth African Regional Meeting, on 2 to 5 December, in Addis Ababa, argues that the emergence of small enterprises is increasingly generating meaningful and sustainable employment opportunities – especially for women.

A recent ILO study, entitled, "Jobs, Gender and Small Enterprises in Africa – A Study on Women's Enterprise Development", estimates that in Zambia, for example, micro- and small-enterprises (MSEs) of up to 30 people, employed nearly 55 per cent of the working population, a figure which increases to almost 82 per cent when unpaid family workers are included. In Tanzania, recent estimates show the MSE sector employing 3-4 million people, or 20 to 30 per cent of the total labour force, and contributing between 35 and 45 per cent of GDP.

Boosting micro- and small-enterprises

ILO programmes like SEED and WEDGE provide a battery of services to women's businesses and their advocates.

"We work mostly in southern and eastern parts of Africa, taking advantage of where we have an ILO support structure and where Development Cooperation Ireland (which funds our work) has bilateral arrangements", says the ILO's Mr. Finnegan. "We operate along two streams – strengthening women's business and entrepreneurial associations, and equipping the women to get the most from their participation in trade fairs."

Mr. Finnegan believes women entrepreneurs who are unaware of existing support services available through associations of women entrepreneurs are denied access to valuable assistance which could help the performance and growth of their enterprise.

"The exchange of personal experiences and involvement in associations not only helps to encourage and motivate the women but also provides opportunities for joint cooperation," he says. "It promotes resource sharing right from the start. Our long term vision is to help micro businesses become small businesses and to help in the progression of workers in the informal to the formal economy."