Together women will deal with barriers better

Dagmar Walter, Director, ILO-India spoke as a chief guest at the 11th Women Entrepreneurs Conference with the theme "Changing Landscape for Entrepreneurs - Aspire, Adapt, Achieve" & the ‘All India Women Entrepreneurs Awards’

Statement | New Delhi, India | 22 April 2021
Dear Veena Swarup, Chairperson of the conference,

Esteemed members of the virtual dias,

Valued participants,

I am very happy to join this conference today, aimed at recognizing the contribution of women entrepreneurs to India’s economy.

Let me at the outset congratulate the winners of the Women Entrepreneur’s Award for this year. I want to acknowledge them, and also other nominees, who have dealt with extraordinary circumstances to sustain and grow their enterprises and continued to act as employment providers during these difficult and trying time.

We are going through a phase of uncertainty with the second wave of COVID-19 and associated restrictions. This is indeed affecting economic activities and enterprises, especially for women-owned businesses, considering they often lag in terms of size and profitability.

In India, a majority of women entrepreneurs are in the lower ends of value chains, and in particular, most of them operate in the informal economy. These circumstances provide limited opportunities for business growth and COVID-19 has further laid bare their extreme vulnerabilities.

The pandemic has given a jolt to many, as social distancing measures, lock-downs and supply chain disruptions have widened the already existing structural inequities. It has forced businesses to face the threat of existence or to downgrade their operations.

Despite these challenges, we are here today to recognize the women entrepreneurs, who have inspiring stories to narrate regarding resumption of their business operations and sustenance. It is our moment to celebrate your innovativeness and encourage your efforts, so that others can learn from them and not to lose hope.

Our experience shows, enabling women entrepreneurs’ meaningful participation in the world of work has multiplier effects on decent employment, poverty reduction and economic growth. The ILO recognizes the importance of the role played by women in the labour market for sustainable and inclusive societies.

To support the growth of women entrepreneurs and improve women’s labour force participation, the ILO has adopted a number of standards that are particularly important for gender equality. These include the ones aimed at eliminating discrimination, promoting equal pay, promoting equality for workers with family responsibilities, and promoting maternity protection. At the International Labour Conference in June 2019, the constituents (Government, workers and employers) adopted the first convention on addressing violence and harassment in the world of work.

Gender equality is also a prerequisite for progress across all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and is a universal common goal in the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.

In India, self-employment accounts for over 52% of total employed, which implies entrepreneurship is playing a critical role in this country. However, only 4% of these are job creators and employ others.

The social barriers women face are also reflected in the world of work, including businesses. The challenges begin from society’s social perception of woman – can she really start a business? And then there are these other factors, like:
• Discriminatory property and inheritance laws and customs;
• Limitations on access to formal financial institutions;
• Limitations in access to training, information and markets
• Time constraints due to family and household responsibilities;

These are a few among the many often invisible hurdles women entrepreneurs deal with and now COVID-19 has further aggravated the nature of these challenges.

The ILO policy response to COVID-19 carefully acknowledges these and upholds principles of preventing discrimination and exclusion through targeted medium and long term measures particularly for women and vulnerable groups. It demands from governments to ensure that women are covered by the responses to the crisis, such as access to economic and social services and benefits, including care services.

We have a dedicated Women’s Entrepreneurship Development (WED) and GET-AHEAD programme. It works with partners to increase economic opportunities for women entrepreneurs by supporting them in starting, strengthening and/or expanding their enterprises.

Last year, ILO supported more than 8000 women in Kerala in collaboration with Kudumbashree and the Department of Industries to start and improve business.

I remember the story of Krishnakumari, whose husband lost his job in the Gulf region due to the COVID-19 pandemic at the beginning of 2020 and had to return to India. With the loss of regular income the family was facing a challenging situation. However, Krishnakumari, took it as a new opportunity. She enrolled herself for the ILO supported Start and Improve Your Business (SIYB) programme in Kerala. With handholding support of the local government and the bank, Krishnakumari went on to start her own flour mill.

Today, she is able to support her family and her husband has decided to stay back and support her too in running their new venture. This is one among many stories of resilience shown by women entrepreneurs. Another well-known example is how many women and small value chains operating in the garment sector were able to repurpose their production to make masks and other personal protection equipment.

We also have a newly launched video series for employers and employees on how to safely organise work in pandemic times, even at home. You can freely access them on our website, where you will also find policy briefs and practical guidance along with regular updates on the impact of COVID-19 on the world of work.

Based on our experience of implementing projects and programmes on the ground, I would like to make a few actionable suggestions for the participants present here.

First, COVID-19 has further pushed adaptation and application of technology and digitalization across sectors. Both employers and employees will have to undertake re-skilling and up-skilling activities to cope and adapt to these changes.

Secondly, combining services such as financial education, access to suitable credit, digitalization and access to various market networks for women entrepreneurs through strategic partnerships – will go a long way in ensuring that women remain in business.

And the most important is equal division of care responsibilities or reducing the care burden for women.

I am certain, that associations like yours can improve advocacy and services for women entrepreneurs.

You are making up an inspiring network of women leaders, who are role models and who make positive contributions to the world of work and ensure well-being and livelihoods of others. You are here today as you have overcome so many challenges already, so I trust you will move forward strong, and even more so after this conference.

As you continue your path to grow as an entrepreneur, you should aspire towards ‘building back fairer’, adapt to ensure health and well-being of your employees and achieve long-term sustainability for your enterprises.

I wish you all the best and thank you for your patient hearing.