Empowering Arab Women, a Difficult Task for the EBRD
24 May 2012, Morocco World News
Faced with a lack of opportunities and disempowerment in their societies, women’s journey towards self-assertion is more effort consuming.
In patriarchal societies, discriminatory practices in the business environment and in workplaces have considerably diminished women’s access to resources. The occurrence of economic and political crisis affects women’s participation in the labor market due to the abrupt restructuring of economy. In this constrained context, women are more present in the low income workforce where professional education is not required. Therefore, it is commonplace to see women more active in subsistence jobs rather than self-employed position, often occupied by men. Women are also subject to wage inequalities and the difficulty to access finance for their project since some financial institutions tend to consider gender in their decision to give loans to entrepreneurs.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has showed commitment to promote sustainable and environmentally sound development in countries the Arab World. The EBRD’s Gender Action Plan (GAP), adopted in May 2009, seeks to promote gender equality and increase the economic participation of women in the private sector, including in decision-making roles, across sectors, projects and clients. The EBRD seeks also to improve access to credit for women entrepreneurs by means of providing micro, small and medium sized loans, and to introduce equal opportunities in HR policies.
In the wake of historic changes sweeping over the Middle East and North Africa, the EBRD’s shareholders gave a unanimous backing to the expansion to the bank’s mandate allowing future operation in the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean (SEMED). Thus, the bank is considering to invest in countries like Egypt; Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia. Investments are expected to start once the full ratifications of changes to the bank’s statutes are reached allowing the bank to extend its area of operation to the SEMED region.
Yet, the social context in the SEMED region and especially in the Arab countries presents a miscellaneous set of historic, cultural, political and socio economic and legal structures that have a direct impact in women’s effective emancipation. In an interview to MWN Mr. Francis Malige, EBRD Director for Financial Institutions in Western Balkans, Belarus, Moldova and Turkey asserts “The EBRD is fully aware of the difference in the context in the North African region. Thus, we shall take this into consideration while developing our projects.
He adds “Women in the North African region usually choose to invest in Small and Medium enterprises. Therefore we are going to contact local banks and negotiate loans that can support these projects”. Mr. Malige makes it clear “The EBRD finances directly projects that require colossal budget”. He adds “We are also in touch with NGOs that have been operating in this region for consultation. We have a committee for civil society since they remain major players when it comes to women empowerment”. When asked about their gender plan in the SEMED region, Mr. Malice said “We don’t have so far a clearly discerned plan, but we intend to tailor our approach to each project depending on the sector of investment”.
Charlotte Ruhe, director of the EBRD small business support team asserts that “ehe EBRD team conducts a study beforehand to appraise the viability of the project in the new investment environment. “We have a local team that conducts this kind of investigation. We intend to work in synergy with local NGOs, donors and civil society. She adds “There is also a need to examine the projects in term of their accordance with the customers’ need in a particular business environment,” she added
The criticism leveled against the EBRD loan policy pertains mainly to its impact on the process of privatization. Indeed, the EBRD has been the main incentive for a hasty privatization, which has unexpectedly resulted in a massive loss of jobs in Eastern Europe. In gender-related issues and within the SEMED region, the programs that aim at empowering women in business are likely to face manifold challenges that cannot be possibly overcome unless the EBRD makes the right adjustments regarding both the cultural and the socio-economic variables.