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