Women’s Empowerment

By: Karen A. Morris
Chair, GSC Women’s Empowerment Committee

Empowerment. Where do we begin with such a vast subject? We need to acknowledge and understand the disparities of perspective and experience between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. We also need to recognize how some dimensions and manifestations of gender inequality, such as domestic violence, transcend ethnicity, economic status and geography. How can we tackle a topic with widely divergent problems to be solved? Can the asymmetric representation of women compared to men in CTO/CIO roles in Europe and North America be framed within the same discussion that also confronts the plight of women and girls denied the most basic of human rights?

Rather than press for the answer, our preference is that the GSC Women’s Empowerment Committee’s first priority be to investigate the question. To help us, we might usefully orient our conversation around the United Nations Global Compact which generally defines empowerment as the ability of people – both women and men – to take control over their lives, set their own agendas, gain skills (or have their own skills and knowledge recognized), increase self-confidence, solve problems, and develop self-reliance. It is both a process and an outcome.

The United Nation’s Global Compact is a strategic policy initiative for businesses that are committed to aligning their operations and strategies with ten universally accepted principles in the areas of human rights, labor, environment and anti-corruption. It is the largest voluntary corporate responsibility initiative in the world endorsed by chief executives in over 12,000 companies and other stakeholders from over 145 countries. Principle 6 of the Global Compact specifically addresses the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation. For more details about the UN Global Compact: http://www.unglobalcompact.org.

“Businesses should uphold the elimination of discrimination in
respect of employment and occupation.”
Principle 6, UN Global Compact

We trust that opinion within the GSC converges on Principle 6. We acknowledge that women’s choices and freedoms and their lack of them can be a polarizing. Tradition, culture, religious beliefs, legal regimes can represent enormous obstacles to full and equal participation of women and girls in society.

None of us, whatever our gender, can perfectly free our point of view from subconscious and unconscious influences such as class, culture, dominant role models, stereotypes, the realities of our economic environment and so forth. This is why elevating and broadening the conversation and identifying and fighting our biases is so critical.

Our GSC conversations invite stories from the humblest and most courageous micro-entrepreneurs, to huge MNC’s and governments, academic institutions, NGA’s, students, technologists, executives and many more. One such inspiring organization is SEED, which was founded by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development.

SEED supports grassroots social and environmental entrepreneurship in developing countries, so far predominantly in Africa, by means of its award scheme. Each year’s winners receive a small (US $5,000) financial contribution to meet their most urgent needs, about 6 months of tailored capacity building-assistance with business planning, partnership management, setting and monitoring social, environmental and economic targets and networking to other institutions. Since its first awards were granted to 5 winners in 2005 the number of awards has grown to about 40 annually. [Further details and a database of all award winners can be found at:  www.seedinit.org ]

Gender equality is mainstreamed throughout the SEED program. While women own about a third of all businesses in the world, and nearly half of those in developing markets, women’s potential contributions to small and medium size “green” businesses have only recently been given attention. Investing in women entrepreneurs is not only good for gender equality and women’s empowerment but is also a smart poverty reduction strategy, smart economics and smart sustainable development.

For this reason SEED is partnering with UN Women which sponsored the first SEED Gender Equality Award in 2011. In 2013, two Gender Equality Awards were made to outstanding women’s enterprises; these were sponsored by UN WomenUNIDO, and supported by Hogan Lovells.

Consistent with our theme in this month’s edition of The Source, SEED’S past award winners include many innovative women’s micro-entrepreneurship projects with strong sustainability dimensions. Examples include Banapads, a social enterprise in Ghana that produces environmentally safe, hygienic sanitary pads from biodegradable recycled agricultural materials. The low-cost product reduces rural schoolgirls’ absenteeism and its distribution network comprises independent women’s microbusinesses. Or consider, Au Grain de Sesame in Morocco, an enterprise that trains disadvantaged women to design and create recycled organic paper products. This Arts and Crafts workshop creates employment, preserves local arts and culture, raises awareness of environmental conservation and encourages eco-friendly purchases.

SEED focuses particularly on start-ups and their special challenges. It has studied the enablers and barriers that nascent enterprises encounter. They published a report reviewing over 1,300 start-ups. We are delighted to share this insightful study with our readers: http://www.seedinit.org/resources/publications/longitudinal-research.html

The unifying purpose that threads through all the themes we touch at the GSC is “connecting” -building connections, creating discourse, exchanging perspectives across the immense spectrum of our collective insights and experience. We are confidant that the men and women who participate in our vibrant discussions and debate on how to address the inequities of gender will make a difference. For all of us on this human question of women’s empowerment – it’s time we did.

We invite you to promote and recommend candidates for the 2014 SEED Awards. Candidates must apply not later than 8thApril 2014, 23:59 CET. www.seedinit.org or Contact the SEED Awards team at: seedawards2014@seedinit.org or Tel: +49 30 8900068 99

About the Author: Karen is a strategic advisor to national and multinational companies. She is also a frequent speaker and writer on innovation and leadership at global forums and conferences around the world.  

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