Empowering Women Entrepreneurs to End Poverty

Empowering Women Entrepreneurs to End Poverty

A group of women meet with their Weaving Dreams Savings & Loans Group in Guatemala.
Written by Tatum Bergen, photographs by Jenny Stoecker

When a woman is equipped with skills, encouraged by her community, and empowered with confidence, she is capable of making lasting change.

This March 8, International Women’s Day is a day to recognize women for their achievements and their abilities, and champion their rights. Since World War II, more and more countries have begun to celebrate women on March 8 and advocate for change, especially when it comes to economic empowerment.

For gender equality to be achieved around the world, and even here in Canada, however, “equal opportunity” isn’t enough. Equal opportunity often does not regard the challenges one person might face that another will not. Women in developing countries, for example, face higher barriers to equality than many other groups due to the unique ways they experience poverty, like education setbacks due to menstruation and cultural stigma or early childhood marriage, among many others. 

Equity, on the other hand, goes beyond equality. Equity looks at what barriers a person faces in all spheres of life, from family life to education to society as a whole. It realizes that these barriers may keep that person back from taking hold of an opportunity to the same extent as someone who does not face those barriers.

Empowering women economically is one of the most effective ways of overcoming these barriers to achieve gender equality and alleviate poverty. A mother who is empowered to provide for her family can make an impact on her children and community that can last for generations.

How Women Entrepreneurs Can End Poverty

Globally, only around 50 per cent of women participate in the labour force. Many of them face barriers to working, such as negative cultural beliefs and stereotypes to working outside the home and a lack of financial resources to start businesses. When women can’t access education or experience discrimination, the result is a lack of confidence in their personal abilities to become entrepreneurs.

And yet, when more women work, economies grow.

If women engaged in the labour force to the same extent as men, the global economy would grow by $28 trillion (USD), or 26 per cent. Not only would the economy grow, but women entrepreneurs would also boost productivity, increase employment diversity, and lead to income equality. Where is their highest potential for economic growth? Low-income countries.

“Women do not have lesser entrepreneurial skills than men, they do have less chance of getting the necessary training to develop their companies,” explains Beatrice Avolio Alecchi, director of the Women’s Centre at Centrum PUCP in Peru. Women face many barriers to opening businesses, from training and access to financial institutions, to being equipped with the confidence and support to take risks to grow their businesses.

Finance is often out of reach for women. Over 70 per cent of women entrepreneurs in low-income countries lack access to formal banks for the loans and accounts they need for their small businesses.

In these contexts, banks don’t always see women as worth the investment. Women cannot always sign contracts without a man, cannot own land on their own, and cannot travel without a male escort. Oftentimes, their husbands fear that economic empowerment will cause their wives to become uncontrollable and they fear their wives will divorce them

A woman in Char Boribilla displays a dress she made after FH sewing training, a skill which allows her to contribute to her family income.

And yet, by giving women the skills and opportunities to generate income, they can contribute to their family’s finances and help bring their families out of poverty—giving them the ability to address the root causes of poverty in their lives, while enabling them to meet their daily needs.

Maria Becomes an Entrepreneur

Maria, a mother of six children in Rio Azul, a remote community in the Ixil region of Guatemala, knew these challenges well. Like many other women in developing countries, starting a business of her own was out of reach. Without ever being taught financial literacy, week after week she struggled to break even, sometimes even falling short.

The belief that women should stay at home—a pervasive belief in many rural Guatemalan communities—didn’t help the situation. Men in the region do not see women as being capable of properly managing family finances and resources. Consequently, they are rarely given the opportunity to learn healthy habits for spending, saving, or investing. 

When FH reached out to local leaders in Rio Azul to begin a partnership, they established a Savings and Loans Group focused on economic and social empowerment for women in the community. 

The group consisted of a group of women who saved money together. The savings are invested in a loan fund, from which members can borrow and repay with interest added. These groups provide simple savings and loan services close to home, especially where formal financial institutions are not available or where women are barred from accessing them. Through these savings groups, women in Guatemala learn how to save, receive entrepreneurial training, and create action plans to address issues in their families and communities.

So, in 2014, Maria joined the Weaving Dreams savings group, and, as time passed, Maria’s participation in the group grew. She learned about responsible financial management, and started to set aside a little bit of her family’s money each week to contribute to the group savings. All the while, she received lessons about how to set individual goals, conduct self-assessments, and establish practical strategies to achieve her goals. Around her, women with new business plans were receiving technical support on business development like customer service, distribution, pricing, and promotion. 

She was equipped with knowledge and tools from her Weaving Dreams group to make wise decisions, had built up her savings, and was surrounded by a community of women to support her. She decided to start her own clothing business!
Maria displays clothes at her shop in Rio Azul.

A Global Issue

Maria’s story isn’t unique. Across the globe, women struggle to access the same financial resources and wages as their male counterparts. 

“This is not a developing country issue—it is a global issue,” says Nancy Lee, a development financing expert at the Center for Global Development. “There are only about 10 countries in the world where entrepreneurship is equal.”

While women in Canada are blessed with opportunities in higher education and employment, there is room for growth here too. Worldwide, there is a need for policies that promote equity in education and healthcare, the right to own property, and increasing access to financial services.

Why? Because women are key to development, especially women in the workforce.

“Investing in women’s economic empowerment sets a direct path toward gender equality, poverty eradication, and inclusive economic growth,” said Anne Shongwe, a UN Women Representative.

By supporting female-owned local businesses and partnering with nonprofits who take a holistic approach to empowering women economically, Canadians can play a key role in supporting women’ and girls’ equity both at home and in low-income countries. Economic empowerment works, and it changes families and lives—like Maria’s.

Maria and her husband, Diego, with FH Guatemala staff in their family field.

Where is Maria today? Thanks to her savings group and the women who support her, she was able to take out and repay three different loans to start and expand her clothing store. She now supplements her family’s income and helps motivate fellow women to start their own businesses. She is proud and happy of the woman she has become—a woman able to contribute to her family and to her community’s development. Surrounded by women who support her, she now knows her worth and believes that she is capable of reaching her goals.

“In other times, I would not have had the courage to start my business,” Maria says, “but thanks to FH that taught us that no matter the circumstances, if I want to, I can achieve anything.”

This International Women’s Day 2023, celebrate women like Maria and step up to empower women economically. Will you take action by gifting women the power to save and start their own business?



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Food for the Hungry: Empowering Women Entrepreneurs to End Poverty
Empowering Women Entrepreneurs to End Poverty
When a woman is equipped with skills, encouraged by her community, and empowered with confidence, she is capable of making lasting change.
Food for the Hungry
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