Women everywhere have the potential to be drivers of economic growth and creators of opportunity—even when they are held back by barriers like discriminatory traditions or limited access to land and credit. This is especially true in Africa, where women are often the backbone of their communities.
Karethic, a company that specializes in shea butter processing, has created more than 500 jobs in nine villages of northern Benin. Co-founder and manager Gwladys Tawema has used her proceeds to support the education of local girls. Nearly 3,000 miles away, Lucilia Xerinda is also utilizing her business, Prestacao de Servicos, to make a difference in the lives of women in need. Her woman’s consultancy and handcraft company in Mozambique contracts low income women from around the country to produce handcrafts that are sold in the capital city. Xerinda uses the consultancy arm of her business to teach the women about re-investing profits in their own businesses and financial planning for their families.
Last month, Tawema and Xerinda, and other participants in the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program (AWEP) visited the Department of Labor (DOL) for a program on Women’s Empowerment. These 47 women were selected to take part in a Department of State-funded initiative, which identifies and builds networks of women entrepreneurs across Sub-Saharan Africa. It is also an outreach and education program to promote increased trade through the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), to create better business environments and empower African women entrepreneurs to become voices of change in their communities.
This was the first time DOL hosted the AWEP leaders. It was an opportunity to meet with an extraordinary group of women and share information about the history of DOL’s efforts to empower women. It was also a chance to begin a dialogue with the AWEP women, as employers, about why good labor practices make good business sense.
The Bureau of International Labor Affairs’ (ILAB) Eric Biel and Kathy Schalch opened the conversation with a discussion on how their agency is actively engaged in advancing the AGOA agenda. From numerous projects across sub-Saharan Africa to reporting on the status of labor law compliance, ILAB has seen stronger economic growth and improved labor standards as going hand in hand. For example, the Bureau currently funds programs throughout Africa that are helping families to no longer rely on their children’s labor. Some of these programs provide women with skills training, tools, financial literacy and access to credit. Women have seized opportunities to improve their livelihoods and help their families and communities. ILAB’s efforts to empower these women, even in small ways, have taken on a sustainable life of their own.
Similarly, Acting Director of the Women’s Bureau (WB) Latifa Lyles shared how the department is empowering women in the United States by promoting their participation in the labor force and business ownership. The WB’s latest focus has been helping women succeed in the “green” economy. Their recent publications, including “Why Green Is Your Color: A Woman’s Guide to a Sustainable Career,” are assisting women in becoming green entrepreneurs.
Whether it is through our work here or abroad, we know that giving women the chance to be independent, family breadwinners can change societal attitudes towards women and girls. The women from AWEP are living proof of this notion. Not only are they pursuing their own goals, they are transforming their communities in the process.