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Women, Post-conflict, and building Democracy

June 10, 2011

The X Factor in Post-Conflict:

Women are (at the very least) half the force driving societies and their democratic development forward. A recent event at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), “Women, Entrepreneurship, and Rebuilding War-torn Communities,” hosted a panel discussion on the role women play in re-shaping the economic and political landscape of conflict and post-conflict societies.

The panelists, which included Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Patti Petesch, Borany Penh, and Stacey Young, presented the arduous process that women go through in preparing communities for development following violent conflict in their countries. They provided commentary on anecdotal situations regarding female entrepreneurs in Afghanistan, and touched on the role of foreign aid in supporting the “women [that] pull communities through” the precarious post-conflict period. The discussion matured into a dialogue on how to support the empowerment of women entrepreneurship through “opportunity structures” and ways to enable “their own agencies”. The impact of foreign aid was considered from the angle of driving social change versus legal change.

Entrepreneurs fighting for Inclusion:

Lemmon, author of The Dress Maker of Khair Khana,  said “[w]omen need to be viewed as survivors of war that are respected.”  She spoke about the power of women entrepreneurs, using examples of courage, tenacity, and resilience, when explaining the need to reframe women’s economic potential beyond the micro-finance niche. Kamela Sediqi, the tailor in Lemmon’s profile of an Afghan entrepreneur, ran a “business [that] gave [women] more than income: it restored their purpose, community, and self-sovereignty“.

Patti Petesch also spoke to women involved in new economic initiatives during periods of conflict. Her study of intrastate conflict in Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines, and Sri Lanka, found that “the conflict communities that experienced the most rapid poverty reduction were also the communities where women received higher empowerment“. She found women in post-conflict societies were involved in sectors of the economy such as informal street vending, “piecework or washing laundry”, and tailoring.

It is important to remember that women, who represent 70% of the worlds poor and perform 60% of the worlds work, often operate in informal and extralegal sectors of the economy. Manal Omar, the director of Iraq and Iran programs at the USIP, said “[o]ften women are performing tasks in an informal capacity and their real contributions are not captured.” Omar further said “[t]he biggest barrier is access by women to the decision-making table.”

‘A Chicken or Egg Question:’

The question of how foreign assistance should be applied towards aspects of achieving social change or legal change and getting women to the table is a prominent one. Stacey Young, Senior Knowledge Management Advisor for the Microenterprise Development Office at USAID, and Borany Penh, the Senior Economic Advisor for the Office to Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs at USAID, contrasted the differences between focusing on social change versus legal change. They contended that in post-conflict societies – historically ingrained with strict patriarchal norms – legal change would not be enough to empower women. Attitudes that enforce people’s behaviors need to be changed first.  What needs to be in place, they argue, are gender norms that recognize women as money-makers, community-builders, and the holders of an equal voice.

The legal and institutional side of the equation looks at the standards needed to allow capital production and accumulation in a society. Aid directed towards building the institutions that uphold a formal rule of law, extends the benefits of formal property rights to entrepreneurs and women.  Property rights help prevent against theft, integrate dispersed people and information, and hold people accountable to the law. All this works to integrate women entrepreneurs and allow the formal economy to support poverty reduction by increasing the living standards of its people.

On both sides of this social-legal change question, private giving and corporate philanthropy play a substantial role.  By funding organizations that promote civil society and entrepreneurial ventures, private giving supports building a more holistic solution to achieving growth and poverty reduction. Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women was cited in the 2011 CGP Index for helping “women… build safer, stronger families, communities and nations”.   In supporting women entrepreneurs, firms not only help build and scale up enterprising projects, but they also help women achieve a seat at the table in the decision-making process.

As women in post-conflict societies take advantage of their “agencies” and build a profit base, they have a value to their family and communities that is quantifiable and yields power. Entrepreneurship leverages women as decision makers. As Lemmon said, “money is power”. As women entrepreneurs, protected by formal property rights and inclusive social norms, participate and influence democratic governance and market economies, they improve the living standards of their post-conflict societies.

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