Gender Equality in SME Development

Women, it is generally agreed, make a significant contribution to local and national economies all over the world. Many donors and NGOs have been concerned about the development of women’s enterprise and there have been a very large number of projects throughout the world aimed at increasing women’s participation in enterprise with funding made available to provide support through training, advice and credit. However, women engaged in small-scale enterprise do not operate in a vacuum and must survive in a market place that is changing. As yet there have been few studies that examine the impact of globalisation on these enterprises.

To date, much of the focus of women’s SME programmes has been on the poor and marginalised, with support targeted to assist women develop an income stream from a trading activity. Given the added difficulties of competition and the changing demands of the customer, the expectations of increased wealth from SME activity may well not be met. Without strategic support to help them compete, many women may continue to struggle on the margins. To date, most of the focus of support for women’s enterprise development has been on the start-up of new enterprises through the provision of small-scale loans or short training programmes. There has been significantly less emphasis on supporting these enterprises and helping them to survive beyond basic start-up, and to compete in changing markets or achieve planned business growth.

For many women, microfinance and small-scale enterprise is not empowering. It can be marginal and can increase tensions in the family, and create contradictions between the need to generate an income, repay loans and fulfil wider family and community responsibilities. Overall, women have yet to be accepted as being competent to own and manage successful businesses. By focusing on women’s enterprise as an anti-poverty measure, it is possible to overlook how women can access mainstream support with policies and measures. Effective gender aware support that recognises and attempts to redress or compensate for the different circumstances and needs of women as compared to their male counterparts is required.

Goetz and Gupta (1996) point out that improvements in women’s productivity, mobility, access to markets, literacy, social status and control of household decisions take time; require considerable commitment by development workers; a long term investment in local-level processes of social change and a willingness to cope with the sometimes violent and disruptive consequences of challenging class and gender privilege. BDS staff need a strong commitment to women’s economic development and an understanding of the constraints that women often have to overcome when setting up and running an enterprise, due to the different traditional structural and social expectations and responsibilities of women and men.

This brief concludes with a useful programme design checklist for Women’s SME development.

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