There is no doubt that the Arab awakening that has been taking place since 2011 has thrown into sharp relief the status of women in the region and the magnitude of the problems facing them.
While social entrepreneurship is an ideal vehicle for re-shaping our region according to more egalitarian and socially responsive principles, myriad challenges still face women wanting to make significant strides in this arena. The wave of social and religious conservatism that has swept Egypt and neighbouring Libya and Tunisia in the last three years has curtailed women’s freedom in several important respects.
Unemployment, dwindling economic prospects and prolonged social unrest all pose a very real threat to establishing an enabling environment for social entrepreneurship to flourish, especially for women. Female social entrepreneurs in the region crucially lack a support system that would offer mentorship, opportunities for networking, skill extension and capacity building, as well as seed funding.
While it is important to establish legal systems to implement policies and practices that support the rights of women, meaningful change must also take place at the grassroots level. Women social entrepreneurs, who identify ways of creating systemic change to solve problems within their own communities, must receive the support they need to scale up their initiatives.
Just 39% of our Ashoka Arab World social entrepreneurs are women. While they are creating meaningful change through their different social initiatives, the rate of this change is nowhere near what it would be if more of them had the opportunity to scale up; very few do.
Ironically, this is in the midst of the general trend towards entrepreneurial culture which has been sweeping the region, with more start-ups and innovation being seen here than ever before. An entrepreneurship ecosystem is growing, with incubators, accelerators, venture capital firms and NGOs dedicated to supporting entrepreneurs appearing in Cairo and throughout the Arab world.
However, these initiatives are often focused on a niche market: generally young, highly-educated male members of the urban elite, whose programs are either profit-making or at least financially sustainable.
In Egypt, with a mere 30% of women having access to a quality education, owning only 17% of the country’s SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) and with only 15% of the female workforce employed by the private sector, where training and skills development is higher than in the public or the social sector, the disproportionate advantages accorded to men are in clear evidence.
Ashoka is establishing a Global Women’s Endowment Fund, the aim of which is to elect ten new Fellows annually whose work creates substantial benefits for women and help five existing female Fellows scale up their work every year.
The newly-elected Fellows could be men working on issues that target women, such as our Saudi Arabian Fellow Khalid al Khudair, who specifically integrates women into the Saudi workforce through his organisation Glowork. Or they could be women working in any field – from health to education and media technology to child counselling.
It is particularly important to support women engaged in fighting the root causes of sexual violence, of whom we are starting to see a flood emerge in Egypt. Like Amani El Tunsi, who has established radio station “Banat wa Bas” (Girls Only); the first online –and taboo-shattering- media outlet in Egypt operated exclusively by and for women.
And Laila Risgallah, who focuses on the devastating problem of sexual abuse. She works with children and victims and their parents and other members of the community to criminalise all forms of sexual abuse in Egyptian society and implement preventative measures for children.
It is time to help women like Amani and Laila at the grassroots level across the Arab world to scale up their ventures, build their skills and extend the scope of their impact. In doing so, we are putting the future of women’s empowerment firmly into the hands of the social entrepreneurs who are most able to make it a reality.