Opinion

Boosting growth and development by promoting female employment

Essma Ben Hamida is a Tunisian entrepreneur and the co-founder of the microfinance institution Enda Tamweel. Pioneer in this sector in Tunisia, Enda Tamweel offers since 1995 services and micro credit lines to micro-entrepreneurs.
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Essma Ben Hamida
Female employment is a key issue around the world, and particularly so in Africa and the Arab countries. Women are dynamic, powerful economic agents, but their economic potential is largely underemployed. Those of them who hope to make a difference still have to clear far too many hurdles, often contending with deep-seated cultural, social, even religious constraints. Yet a lot of women are able to generate income and thereby offer their families better living conditions. Basic training to consolidate their skills in a given trade, along with access to financing, could be enough to tip the scales in their favour and unleash their entrepreneurial potential.

That hunch was what led Enda Inter-Arabe in 1995 to start providing microcredit in the working-class neighbourhoods of Tunis, with women as priority recipients. At the time, microcredit was non-existent in Tunisia, even though short-term development programmes of course included credit modules.

Tunisian girls and women are consistently active in the household and often do better in school than their brothers – they made up 63% of the country’s secondary school graduates in 2017 – but their potential is still undervalued and underexploited. Access to financial services through microcredit has enabled quite a few low-income women to become genuine entrepreneurs. Long confined to the home, women are now increasingly conspicuous.

And at a time of high male unemployment, many of them have emerged as breadwinners. We have observed this authentic revolution in Ettadhamen, the largest working-class district in Tunis, where Enda first introduced microcredit in 1995. I can confidently assert that access to credit and support for microenterprise have been major contributors to the boom in female entrepreneurship that has by now spread to every disadvantaged urban and rural areas in the country where Enda is active through its 80 branches. Today, Tunisian women have gain confidence. They have become high-profile economic agents that generate wealth and jobs.

Public policies designed to meet concrete employment needs have primarily focused on the formal sector and men, without any regard for economic realities and the widespread informal sector in the country’s economy. A large part of the work performed by women in Arab countries remains unrecorded or “invisible”. What they do brings them little or no recognition – and little or no pay. Promoting the creation of decent, productive jobs will therefore require integrated policies which support female
entrepreneurship.

Enda’s experience since 1995 – initially as an NGO, and since 2016 as a limited liability company called Enda Tamweel – shows how effective support for women’s businesses can be. Over the past 22 years, Enda has granted 2.5 million microloans totalling an estimated 2.5 billion dinars (or €1 million) to 650,000 micro-entrepreneurs
- two thirds of them being women. Those loans have successfully allowed a large number of microenterprises set ups, housing conditions improvement, as well as keeping children in school and sending some of them to university. In fact, some families already boast a second or even third generation of micro-entrepreneurs.

Empowering women is a crucial challenge around the world. It is essential today to take the empowerment drive further, not only by developing the skills of women and assisting them with project management, but also by supporting their role as citizens who take active part in political and community affairs. In Tunisia as in many other countries, society as a whole is still a long way from recognizing the economic and social potential of women. But it is by continuing to support projects like Enda Tamweel that international funding providers will help us progress in that direction.