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Women entrepreneurs the 'motor for development'
Julio Godoy
Published: 13-JUL-05

Paris - Give Arab women the chance to become entrepreneurs by facilitating access to education, professional training and financial resources, and you will start the motor of economic development and democracy in the Middle East and North Africa region.

That is the motto of the organisers of the workshop "Building awareness of women's entrepreneurship in the MENA region", taking place in the Turkish city of Istanbul, under the auspices of the Organisation for Economic Development and Co-operation (OECD), which represents the 30 most industrialised countries of the world.

The MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region includes 21 countries, extending from Morocco to Pakistan, Turkey to Yemen.

The main objective of the meeting "is to raise consciousness among policy makers, investors and bankers, and women and men in the Muslim world that women's entrepreneurship represents an untapped reservoir for job creation, economic growth and social cohesion", Marie-Florence Estimé, deputy director of the OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, Small and Medium Enterprises, and Local Development, told IPS.

Estimé, a lead organiser of the Istanbul workshop, said it will be "a gathering to learn. We will have several round tables that will discuss six major themes, all related to the economic empowerment of women".

These six subjects focus on enhancing girls' and women's access to education, financial sources, fostering economic diversification and growth, and state strategy toward these aims.

The workshop next week promises to draw policy recommendations addressed to both public and private decision-makers, which will be considered at the Ministerial Meeting of the MECA-OECD Investment Programme, slated for November in Amman, Jordan.

"With these recommendations, we want to reach out not only to policy-makers, but also to potential women entrepreneurs and other stakeholders so as to raise awareness of the benefits that economic and professional empowerment of women can trigger for the society as a whole in the MENA region," Estimé said.

She noted that the experience of South-East Asia, and also North America, underline the enormous reservoir of economic growth and job creation represented by enterprises owned by women.

However, she acknowledged that cultural and religious realities in the MENA region countries could obstruct the application of lessons learnt elsewhere.

She also said that the participants in the workshop are aware of the impact that Muslim societies' particularities have on women's social and economic roles.

"We will not address religious or human rights issues at the workshop," she said.

Gender imbalances

But the OECD expert emphasised the fact that previous experiences in other regions of the world show that empowering women as economic actors, especially in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) can be a powerful mechanism for economic development and consolidation of democracy.

Estimé said that raising awareness of the economic role of women must also extend to younger generations.

"Children must know the rights and the possibilities of women as actors of development," she said.

In addition, she said, "Men, at the private level, and governments, must recognise that the physical integrity of women must be protected unconditionally. This includes health protection, but also protection against violence in the family, exerted by parents, by husbands, by brothers."

"This is the fundamental backdrop of the economic role of women," stated Estimé.

Another aspect to be taken up by the Istanbul workshop is girls' and women's access to basic education.

Maria-Kryztyna Duval, an OECD official assisting Estimé in organising the workshop, told IPS that in general, women's unequal access to education, health, and ownership in the MENA countries corresponds to a lesser degree than in the industrialised countries.

"But in some countries in the MENA region, there is a drastic contrast between girls' and women's access to education and health care in comparison to that of boys and men's," she said. - IPS



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