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Empowering rural Bhutanese women entrepreneurs

In Bhutan, SNV’s efforts to support women masons reveal that they are faced multiple challenges over the past decade

By Tandin Wangchuk

It is often stated that well-intentioned approaches to promote rural women’s entrepreneurship in the WASH sector can inadvertently marginalise them if these fail to recognise and act on gendered barriers to women’s economic empowerment.

SNV and partners are embedding women’s economic empowerment theory in WASH private sector development strategies to address the multiple and specific barriers that women face in starting, operating, and benefiting from new and existing business opportunities in Bhutan, Lao PDR, and Nepal.

SNV with partners1 in Bhutan, Lao PDR, and Nepal are engaged in three projects under the SNV-led programme, ‘Beyond the Finish Line,’ which is supported by the Australian Government’s Water for Women (WfW) Fund.

Each project looks beyond Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) coverage and uses different context-appropriate strategies to achieve safe and equitable WASH access and use for all.

Promoting women’s entrepreneurship and economic empowerment in WASH supply chains is a common strategy shared across all projects. Realising women’s entrepreneurship and economic empowerment through WASH supply chain development is not a straightforward process.

“Access to economic opportunity does not automatically equate to women’s economic empowerment. Women face multiple barriers that impact their business opportunities, profit margins, customer base, scale of operations,” a SNV report states.

Further it states that they may not benefit from entrepreneurship in the WASH sector as expected. Gender-blind approaches to women’s entrepreneurship risk marginalising women in their families and communities, with implications for their health, well-being, and social standing.

It also found out that access to income does not automatically translate to increased confidence, decision-making, respect, or standing in families or communities. Husbands and/or other family members often decide what, where, and when products will be sold.

“Women’s incomes are not always managed by themselves. There is evidence that men have withdrawn from their responsibility for household and family expenses due to women’s increased access to income. As women’s financial responsibilities at home grow, the pressure to undertake paid work heightens, but women’s care work responsibilities remain unchanged,” the report reveals.

SNV states that this phenomenon is called the ‘feminisation of responsibility and obligation’ and has caused increased financial stress, long working days, limited sleep, and poor health for women.

WASH programmes committed to gender equality are therefore faced with the challenge to balance entrepreneurship training with context-specific.

Initiatives to address structural and relational barriers to women’s economic empowerment, including men’s power over women (in the workplace, communities, and the household), SNV has risen to this challenge, with a commitment to facilitate more significant and equitable opportunities and benefits for women in the WASH sector, within the target districts of Bhutan, Lao PDR, and Nepal

Promoting empowering and equitable WASH entrepreneurship SNV in Bhutan, Lao PDR, and Nepal have adopted an iterative approach in promoting women’s empowerment through WASH supply chain development and entrepreneurship activities, building on previous experiences.

Challenges and opportunities in BFL country programmes Bhutan

Increasing the mobility, motivation, and social acceptability of women masons Across eight districts in Bhutan, SNV is expanding women’s entrepreneurship in the typically male-dominated profession of masonry, and opportunities to engage as business owners of hardware retail shops in target districts.

It revealed that in Bhutan, SNV’s efforts to support women masons have faced multiple challenges over the past decade.

Together with the Public Health Engineering Division (PHED) of the Ministry of Health, technical training in masonry work was provided for women who had been identified in partnership with relevant women’s NGOs. Prior to the technical training, SNV teams first spoke with the trainees’ families to gain their support for their participation.

The trainings were facilitated by women trainers to make women trainees feel more comfortable and to reduce men’s concern over their safety. In parallel, health promoters advocated the hiring of women trainees during household visits to potential clients.

Apart from the successful recruitment of a select few, communities remained mostly skeptical of the skills of women masons.

Preliminary post-training discussions with women masons highlighted that whilst a small number of trained women masons successfully undertook work, many have been prevented from expanding their businesses.

The study revealed that business expansion has also been hampered by village opinion that gives greater preference for male masons’ perceived skills.

“Unfortunately, it appears that additional training opportunities for women masons have not changed this perception. As a result, trained women masons, whilst confident of their technical skills, have become unmotivated to develop or grow their businesses,” it states.

Further, it noted that the experiences of women masons in Bhutan are barriers that predominantly fall within the two informal quadrants of the Gender@work framework.

Recognising the need for in-depth contextual information to progress the approach and strategy, the project is now exploring whether age and marital status may impact on women entrepreneurs’ mobility in Bhutan, and whether joint travel opportunities between masons may increase men’s support for women’s mobility and their sense of safety.

Further, cooperatives or social enterprise business models are being explored as potentially more attractive business models for women entrepreneurs than a for-profit business model.

Community leadership’s support for women mason’s work, combined with buyer incentives to employ women masons, and specific targeting of households to recruit women labourers, such as women-headed households, are also being considered to redress limited demand.

In addition, given the critical importance of women’s networks to their entrepreneurship development, in late 2020 the team engaged six masons in Leadership for Change activities, to build their networks, confidence, and leadership skills.

“Ongoing communication between participants supported through We-Chat groups is working towards a sixmonth district-based leadership action plan,” it further stated.

Meanwhile, the study reveals that efforts to stimulate women-led market growth of sanitation and hygiene entrepreneurship need to be supported by initiatives that promote women’s greater mobility, networks and networking skills, access to finance and other resources, and safe control over their business and finance.

It states that preventative actions are critical for women’s empowerment and will need to be taken to ensure that gender norms do not result in unsustainable and inequitable workloads and responsibilities for women, as their economic roles diversify.

“Social norms and exclusionary practices can be significant barriers to women’s entrepreneurship or the scale-up of their operations. Initiatives that focus on women WASH entrepreneurs tend to engage men during the initial stages of project development to gain support for women’s work or training opportunities but follow-up is scarce,” it states.

However, the report revealed that very little is documented about engaging men and other family members in WASH project activities to drive change in social norms around care work, decision-making, and financial management.

Going forward, SNV states the approaches offer them with a unique opportunity to trial innovative approaches and to contribute to growing sector knowledge and practice in the area of empowerment and equity within women’s entrepreneurship initiatives.

“Understanding the project context remains critical to tailor context-appropriate strategies, as well, engaging in regular cycles of learning will inform improved sense-making and project development at local levels,” it states.

pic: pintrest

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