Topic of interest covered in this piece: Women development, Middle East, North Africa, G8. UK Government Department for International Development. Finance, law and (social) enterprise in the Middle East.

G8 Deauville Partnership Summit for Arab Women – Overview Blog. 25/26 June 2013

Opening panel of the Summit 2013

In response to growing development of the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) and the importance in supporting women in this, the UK Department for International Development invited influential women from all over the MENA region and the UK to discuss the way forward.

Participants included business women, MENA Chamber of Commerce representatives, World Bank, Government Ministers, royal family members and more. The objective: to develop a powerful network and to draw out an action plan for progress in supporting more women in the MENA region to participate in the economy.

My mind is bursting at the seams with information, ideas and energy! Here are some of the key themes that emerged out of the 2 days.

  • With HRH Princess Sumaya of Jordan

    Laws/policies that remove blockage

  • Technology
  • Women’s progress

1) Changing laws/policies is important but not enough.

Cherie Blair, first speaker of the day stated; “Women still come across blocks- so how do we overcome obstacles: Sometimes it’s changing the law. Then there are informal barriers- most often harder to remove.”

4 million women in Egypt do not have an ID which is a barrier to growth, finance and support. Another example from Jordan was that they changed policy on supporting maternity for women- they established a fund that covers women’s maternity payments so that more companies aren’t put off with employing women. Ghada Waly, MD of Social Fund Development Egypt also stated; “we need to strengthen laws to protect girls from underage marriage- parents fake birth certificate so they can marry young.”

My interest really peaked in this area by a story told by Reem Badran, a vice-chairman from Jordan Chamber of Commerce, who explained that she was told she couldn’t be a witness for signing of papers because she’s a woman! She asked why and was told because it’s the law- only males can witness signatures. Ms Reem consulted her lawyers and discovered that, it’s in fact not law, but actually culture. This story highlights grey areas and that quick fixes of changing laws won’t necessarily always result in progress but that attention must be placed on the deeply rooted cultural habits and that laws alone won’t fix that.

2) Technology is VITAL in women’s progress.

The point about the role that technology plays was highlighted time and time again by various speakers throughout the G8 summit. I absolutely agree-technology that is one of the most liberating tools for women (she writes as she has a laptop and phone capturing the whole summit via my instagram, twitter, facebook, blog and video!). When we deliver ‘Startup and Stilettos- The Future is Female’ programme, the social media module is one of the most exciting for the women. Women who may have previously felt isolated and closed up can now use this important platform. Perhaps this is why so many Arab women use Instagram and now running their business from it.

Ms Diane Primo, Founder of Interlink Global made a passionate statement on this; “Technology is an important tool- it can no longer keep women in their place. You want to give women access- give them access to the world. Share information. It’s making us talk about our issues and getting us huge global backing. Good news for us!”

3) Women’s progress (opportunities, barriers & DFID announcement)

Firstly it’s important to refer to Fiona Wolf’s point (Chairman, CMS Cameron McKenna) that “the challenges faced in the MENA aren’t unique to just the MENA region- even here in the UK, in the FTSE 100, there are only 3 female CEOs”.

I would also echo Dianna Primo’s points that “We need to embrace entrepreneurialism- the spirit of it. Passion and attitude breaks the barrier- how do we support that: fearless women and risk takers.”

In the quest for women to develop and rival men in industries- I felt Lynne Franks point was an important one; “Women don’t have to be like men to be successful- we have our own qualities for success.” That’s something which I remind girls and women when I go out and speak and train females- you should be able to be feminine, yourself and still be taken seriously. We shouldn’t have to fit into people’s boxes in order to succeed.

Over lunch I was sitting outside (in the beautiful Lancaster House Garden) speaking to colleagues who were listing their desired recommendations for the MENA region. I stated that surely it’s wrong to assume that a country like Qatar for example, needs the same support and actions as Egypt. The countries and the stage that they’re at vary hugely, and therefore our solutions should too. This was a risk I picked up at the conference, is that the excitement and passion felt by all to support women to progress, has to be done so with the appreciation that any one way won’t necessarily work for all- and I would personally welcome leading females in participating countries to develop their own networks that can help shape a solution fit for purpose.

In one of the workshops, a British lady strongly stated to Arab women “we were where u are 40 years ago- learn from our mistakes. Stop pushing people into University- you need industry and jobs” I went and spoke to her afterwards and applauded her point but reminded her that one has to appreciate a couple of things; 1) their culture is extremely different to the one in the UK and 2) Sometimes we have to go through the necessary processes in order to arrive at the desired destination.

This point was further emphasized by the lovely Princess Sumaya Bint El Hassan, Jordan, ‘We look to you for advice, training and guidance to go forward but we ask that you appreciate our culture and history.’ (perhaps more directed at the West).

Tara Vishwanath- Senior Economist on MENA, the World Bank. outlined; “The last 3 decades has seen progress on closing gender gap. More females attending Universities and enrolling into education- however this is not translating into economic participation. MENA still has one of the lowest in the world.” A point which was further backed by the minister for Social Development, Jordan – H.E Reem Abu Hassan

Ms Tara highlighted also the importance of encouraging women into business as World Bank findings show that women are more likely to employ women, so will have a snowball effect.

Melody Hossaini. Speaking about Social Enterprise

It was at this point, that I felt compelled to contribute to the summit by raising Social Enterprise and the fact that it’s women who are leading this important sector of business. Throughout ‘Startup and Stilettos- The Future is Female’ programme we’ve learned that introducing social enterprise as an option for women can have extremely positive implications resulting in economic participation.

The Minister for International Development, Justine Greening spoke passionately about the subject saying; “Businesses that don’t invest in women will miss out. Investing in women and girls isn’t just right, but also smart. Investing in women has a double benefit- 1) for them as individuals and 2) The women invest into families and communities.”

The lack of and difficult access to financial support is a barrier however. “There is not enough finance available for enterprise for women.” Justine Greening used the conference to announce the DFID’s plans to tackle this by developing 2 initiatives:

1)    The Challenge Fund-  For early 2014, a fund for Arab women to encourage competition and increase women’s economic participation.

2)    Offering technical assistance to Governments

This was the first of conferences in this way- and overall, was impressed with the level of discussion and commitment to this agenda. At one point I caught myself applauding a female being able to witness a signature or the first ever female to complete a PHD, and thought wow we really do have a long way to go in the MENA region- but we’re finally taking the important steps forward. InspirEngage International is working extensively in the region including being a partner in running a girls’ college in Saudi Arabia where we’re delivering key curriculum to support girls into employment and setting up their own businesses.

On the final panel, something which made me laugh was said by one of the American representatives; “As we go forward and powers shift- we hope that you’re kinder to us than we have been to you” Quentin Primo- CEO Capri Capital. (not sure if he meant shift of powers from West to East or male to female!). Lady next to me replies; “Can’t promise anything!”

Melody Hossaini, Founder and CEO, InspirEngage International.

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