Perspective on Gender Equality and Women in Business | Sheila Birungi

Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), published in September, 2015 is: ‘achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’.

Goal 5 commits and sets specific targets for governments to: increase access to paid employment; cut gaps between women and men in the labour market; get more women into leadership positions, and increase participation of women in public decision making. These commitments represent global aspirations and barriers to gender equality. However, having spent most of my life in the UK, it is easy to take for granted the equality, freedom and independence that women are rightly afforded compared to other parts of the world – such that through childhood, I didn’t really appreciate the importance of gender equality because I perceived it to be an obvious social, moral and political right. Not to say that the UK or developed countries have got it right yet: research and analysis carried out this year identified a 24% gap in average full-time salaries between men and women in the UK[1].

Nonetheless, the issue of gender equality has become more poignant and relevant over time and especially from my observations and interactions with the Zambian female volunteer counterparts and SME business owners. One of my key observations from my time here has been:

Do not believe everything you see or hear in the media!

For a long time, coverage of African countries has mostly focused on negative and sorry aspects, such as: poverty, hunger, low literacy rates and life expectancy rates, poor health and social care provision, severe gender inequality. Although the misery depicted is of real and factual events, there is a significant lack of balance. This has fostered perceptions of pity that justify hand-out based foreign aid interventions. These approaches often only address the symptoms of the problems facing African countries rather than the true causes; they also perpetuate indigenous attitudes of entitlement, dependence and corruption. My main motivation for applying for the Challenges Worldwide ICS programme was that in contrast to mainstream approaches of international development- it delivers volunteer-driven intervention that is focused on training and supporting SME business owners to assist them to overcome market challenges and failures, in a way that enables them to sustain growth and financial viability themselves, in the long term. This I believe is a more sustainable way of assisting developing countries to achieve truly sustainable economic development.

For instance, I have observed that in contrast to what I had initially perceived- a significant proportion of small or micro businesses are owned by women. African women are highly entrepreneurial, they own a third of all businesses across Africa and women operated businesses a fundamental source of income for households[2]. However, there are many unreported barriers preventing female owned businesses developing and expanding, such as: a lack of skill and access to financial services.

It is reported that improving gender inequality and empowering women would raise the productive potential of one billion Africans. At a different scale, a similar situation prevails in the UK: It is estimated that the UK would gain up to £23 billion (equivalent of 2% GDP) by better harnessing women’s skills[3]. Thus, empowering women should not be achieved through charity and handouts; instead the achievements and potential of female owned enterprises should be recognised and supported through provision of easily accessible services such as: business training to compliment entrepreneurialism and increase accessibility to financial tools and services.







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