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Why Think Small When It Comes to Women in Poor Nations?

Author: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Senior Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy
March 29, 2011


Editor's note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a fellow and deputy director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council of Foreign Relations. She writes extensively about women entrepreneurs in conflict and post-conflict zones, including Afghanistan, Bosnia and Rwanda. She wrote "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana," a book that tells the story of an Afghan girl whose business created jobs and hope during the Taliban years.

We think small when it comes to women. Micro, to be exact.

When I first started reporting on women entrepreneurs in conflict and post-conflict zones in 2005, nearly everyone, from International Monetary Fund officials in their offices to development workers in the field, told me the only women I would find would be "selling cheese by the side of the road."

Women, I was told again and again, did not own the kind of growing businesses that created jobs and economic growth. This, it seemed, was strictly the purview of men. One customs official even joked that they were not sure why I had taken a week-long trip to Afghanistan to interview businesswomen when surely my interviews would all fit into the space of a single afternoon.

What I found when I began reporting, however, was that even in the poorest and most traditional countries, women owned businesses that went well beyond the micro. In Rwanda, I met a gas station owner with several workers and a woman selling fruits and vegetables -- not on "the side of the road" but rather for export to Belgium twice a week. Her work created jobs for eight people at the time, including her husband, and supported her own and several other adopted children. In Sarajevo, I met a textile entrepreneur, with a new factory near the old front lines, whose company selling bed and bath linens employed 20 people, mostly women, who could now afford to send their own children to school.

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