Datin Paduka Seri Rosmah: “It is my wish that a financing and capacity building scheme for rural women entrepreneurs can be established at the ASEAN level. Such a scheme will enhance the entrepreneurship capacity through innovations. Women entrepreneurship development is the key to the progress of rural communities.”
In the recently-held inaugural Global Transformation Forum 2015 (GTF2015), a panel of high-profile women came to the consensus that women on the lower end of the global and local economies or social structures tended to fare worse when compared to their male counterparts; a situation that required governments to adopt policies that were gender-sensitive.
In the ASEAN region, such women are mostly to be found in the rural areas, where approximately half or more of the population (estimates vary between ~50% and 69%) still live. Indeed, bucking the ‘megacity’ trend of elsewhere, a Nielsen study suggests that by 2025, almost 80% of the ASEAN population will continue to live either in rural areas or in large towns/small cities of under 500,000 people in size, with the proportion of people staying in rural areas shrinking by a mere 2%.
With the ASEAN Economic Community’s growing emphasis on SMEs and entrepreneurial initiatives, then, the encouragement of women-owned and –operated businesses, especially in the rural areas, would seem to be the logical thing to do. Unfortunately, the challenges that rural women face are quite real; they pose significant hurdles in their way that they have to clear, if they are to contribute their fair share to the nation’s economy and improve their own lives.
Many initiatives, both from within ASEAN, as well as in cooperation with other government and NGO bodies throughout the world, have been introduced to change the way women, especially in rural or underdeveloped areas, are being treated and viewed, and to provide the access to the resources they need to succeed.
One of these initiatives is the ASEAN Women Entrepreneurship Network (AWEN), which was launched early in 2014. AWEN is supported by ACTI, a joint project between ASEAN and the US Government. Another such initiative is the GREAT Women in ASEAN programme, which seeks to empower women up the value chain, and was launched earlier this year.
These initiatives and others like them were the focus of the Voices of ASEAN Women Forum, held in conjunction with the 27th ASEAN Summit and Related Summits 2015. Themed “Exploring Business Opportunities for Rural Women”, the forum was officiated by wife of Malaysian Prime Minister, Datin Paduka Seri Rosmah Mansor.
During her keynote address, Datin Paduka Seri Rosmah noted that in emerging markets, only 37% of all SMEs were owned by women as late as 2014. “Stimulating the economy is not the only reason for empowering rural women through entrepreneurship. It empowers them psychologically by enhancing their self-esteem which gives them more confidence to take on leadership roles and actively participate in decision-making in the local community,” she added.
Datin Paduka Seri Rosmah (centre in pic) also highlighted the various efforts being made in Malaysia specifically targeting such women, including the Single Mother Skill Incubator programme (I-KIT), the Women Entrepreneurship Incubator Programme (I-KeuNita), and SME Bank’s Women Entrepreneur Financing programme. “It is my wish that a financing and capacity building scheme for rural women entrepreneurs can be established at the ASEAN level. Such a scheme will enhance the entrepreneurship capacity through innovations. Women entrepreneurship development is the key to the progress of rural communities.”
That sentiment is shared by one of the speakers at the forum, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization’s (FAO’s) Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific, Kundhavi Kadiresan. During her presentation, Kadiresan broke down the economic benefits that would accrue to the world in general and Asia Pacific in particular, as a result of empowering women to achieve their full potential.
“We could have the annual global GDP increased by USD28 trillion. And if you looked at the last set of numbers for women in Malaysia and Indonesia, if we increased their employment numbers from 30% to 70%, the GDP in both Indonesia and Malaysia will increase by 2% to 4%. I think these are numbers that we need to speak more about.”
Janet Wong, Timor-Leste’s Country Representative for UN Women, pointed out that throughout Southeast Asia, women are heavily involved in the agricultural sector, echoing statements made by the FAO’s Kadiresan. “I think an enabling environment is key,” she said concerning the support systems needed to boost the productivity and quality of life of such women. “Rural women are not victims of development; they are agents of change and economic development, and I think we need to promote their equal participation in economic growth opportunities.”
She also suggested temporary measures to increase and fast-track women’s participation in leadership and decision-making structures, including in the private sector (particularly in the boardroom); the facilitation of safe migration to prevent their abuse; enhancing capacity building to raise skill levels of rural women; and ensuring that microcredit schemes empower women, not burden them.
As the ASEAN Economic Community becomes a reality, various organisations and programmes have been set up to enable women – especially rural women – entrepreneurs and provide them the benefits of the myriad advantages that a unified economy throughout Southeast Asia could bring them, and to increase their regional networking capabilities. It is through this network-building and inclusive strategies that the ASEAN way is truly put on display.