Chema Gargouri’s entrepreneurial cause ‘Economic empowerment is key to gender equality’

Friday 17/04/2015

TUNIS - Promoting women’s entre­preneurship skills is a key step towards ensuring gen­der equality, says Chema Gargouri, director of Wom­en’s Enterprise for Sustainability (WES) in Tunisia and an advocate of women’s economic empowerment in the Arab world.
Gargouri runs a variety of pro­grammes aimed at promoting women’s entrepreneurship skills. She sees financial sustainability as a crucial prerequisite of any entre­preneurial pursuit. Economic inde­pendence, she says, is the first step towards gender equality and em­powerment.
A command of financial man­agement skills is listed as the top challenge facing Middle Eastern and North African women entre­preneurs by the 2012 collaborative study conducted by the Centre of Arab Women for Training and Re­search (CAWTAR) and the World Bank’s International Finance Cor­poration’s Gender Entrepreneurship Markets (IFC GEM).
After Bahrain, Tunisia has the largest rate of women entrepreneurs with sole ownership of their firms (55%).
Tunisian women-owned compa­nies had the highest recruitment rates, employing an average of 19 workers per firm, according to the study.
Gargouri’s own organisation is a case in point. “When I started my NGO and there were no donors,” she recalls. “I used my own money for the first two years.” She now offers paid services and receives support from domestic and foreign donors. “I am always very careful not to be totally dependent on foreign do­nors,” she says.
She works with local civil soci­ety organisations to assist women would-be entrepreneurs with lead­ership and sustainability training, access to financial help and other services.
Without the partnership with our social environment, these services couldn’t yield “results and success stories”, says Gargouri.
But why is entrepreneurial assis­tance offered solely to women? “As women, we have our own set of is­sues. It’s not about feminism. It’s about the stability of society,” she says.
When women entrepreneurs take the initiative for self-reliance through business they are likely to face obstacles that their male coun­terparts do not.
“I lived it as a woman,” she says. “People undermine you and your work as unimportant. When men do these things, they receive a different reaction.”
Although Tunisia is often praised for its Code of Personal Status, a series of progressive laws ensuring women’s rights, gender parity re­mains elusive.
Gargouri laments the lack of or­ganisations working with Tunisian women on social enterprise and entrepreneurship skills. There are scores of advocacy groups and or­ganisations focused on women’s so­cio-political issues usually concern­ing equal representation, abuse, and domestic violence, reinforcing the image of women as “victims”, she says. “When we talk about entre­preneurship, we have to talk about leadership. One cannot exist with­out the other,” says Gargouri. For her it takes a “leader”, an innately special person, and in this case a woman, to be a successful entrepre­neur. The organisation announced the opening of seven entrepreneur­ship skill enhancement centres in different regions of Tunisia earlier this year, in addition to six centres already operating.
Gargouri says she would like to launch new projects in other Arab countries. For now, her mind seems to be set on Algeria. “Algerian wom­en have a lot in common with Tu­nisian women. They are energetic, strong and educated,” she says.